NITI Aayog Vice-Chariman Rajiv Kumar says PM Modi takes his suggestions seriously; favours simultaneous Lok Sabha and assembly polls due to cost factor.
Rajiv Kumar has taken over as NITI Aayog vice-chairman just five months ago. Under his leadership the government think tank has contributed to the recent budget proposals. In this candid interview to ThePrint, he talks about the institution, its problems, achievements and its future plans. Excerpts:
How do you view the performance of the NITI Aayog in the past three years?
It is a bit difficult for me to answer that question because I have been here only for the past five months. I think NITI Aayog is clearly a work in progress for several reasons. Firstly, because the PM’s vision itself is very ambitious and very wide-ranging. The Aayog is not merely coming up with new ideas but also implementing them. The system includes not just the central government but also the state governments…As you can imagine given the scale and magnitude of the vision, the Aayog will remain a work in progress for a while.
There are some who feel that the Aayog has not come up with more policy and legislative suggestions for the government.
I of course disagree. The Aayog has come up with a lot of suggestions. To give you a few examples, we have done the nutrition strategy for India. We are in the forefront on ease-of-doing business and bringing the states along with the DIPP (Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion).
We have set up a task force in export and unemployment to make suggestions, which have been accepted. Rating of the states is yet another. We are now in the process of finalising the new energy policy. We are the body, which suggests which public sector unit to be disinvested. We have suggested the gold policy. The Aayog is working on all sides from women and child development to manufacturing electric cars across the board.
Earlier, the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission used to attend cabinet meetings. Is Aayog one notch down than the Planning Commission?
It would appear so. In real terms it is not. The relationship between the vice-chair and the chair is good and I have the ears of the Prime Minister. The chairman takes it seriously and he gives the time for the vice-chair to discuss with him.
Cooperative federalism was the operative word in the Aayog’s dealings with the states. How cooperative are the states?
Yes, I am very happy that all the chief ministers are very supportive of the NITI Aayog. They see NITI as their potential partner. My predecessor and I — we have completely reversed NITI Aayog’s relationship with the states they had with Planning Commission. The states don’t come to us .We go to them.
I have already visited 14 state capitals and interacted with them. I keep telling them that they should consider the Aayog as their outpost.
The finance minister said in his budget speech that NITI Aayog will establish a National Programme on artificial intelligence. How do you propose to go about it?
Artificial Intelligence has emerged as the most (important) driving force in the world today. We have to accept it and embrace it in India although it holds a trade-off between technology adoption and jobs. For that we need an approach, a government-industry-academia approach towards it. The NITI Aayog has set up a multi stakeholder committee to draw up a programme of action and to adapt it to different areas from agriculture to space sciences.
You had contributed to the budget on farmers and health issues. Can you explain how these will be implemented?
MSP has to be implemented. When we have promised the farmer MSP it is incumbent upon the government to deliver it. Otherwise there will be a huge moral hazard. So there are several schemes that have been considered at the moment like the one in Madhya Pradesh. We could also have in some sense complementary measures to improve their incomes and not taking recourse to MSP.
What about the health scheme?
It is of course ambitious. We had argued for a more ambitious scheme to cover the whole population for the simple reasons that one, that would have completely energised the whole population and the middle classes and two, that the premium comes down as you include the upper income brackets to such schemes because their demands on medical services is less than the lower income groups…It will take four or five months to roll it out.
Everybody agrees that job creation is a big worry for the government. What is your suggestion to create more jobs?
The first problem is the data. It is an absolute scandal. In a young country like ours the employment data is out once in five years…We are now setting up a data analysing unit at NITI Aayog for getting the pay-roll surveys from the employer side also about what their plans are for retrenching etc…Now, on the job front I have to agree with my predecessor and people like Manish Sabharwal (of TeamLease) point out that it is not so much unemployment but it is underemployment.
The Aayog has favored simultaneous polls for Lok Sabha and state assemblies. Do you think it is feasible in the present circumstances?
Only and only if there is a political consensus across all parties and all stakeholders. This has to be an even bigger effort than for the GST because everybody concerned must be on board. It is not something that you can ram through. This is why the Prime Minister has made such huge efforts in emphasising this.
But as an economist I do feel it is needed. The cost of being in a perennial election mode is impossible. It is a huge cost we pay. There is the other big issue. I think there is an electoral fatigue in this country. The de-legitimisaiton of democratic forces can be a very big challenge.
Kalyani Shankar is a columnist, former Political Editor and former Washington correspondent of Hindustan Times