Saturday October 16, 2021

Should we have a planning commission?

Khawaja Asif’s caustic remark: “If here had been a Planning Commission then, Taj Mahal would not have been built!” thankfully started a debate on this important issue.First, let us tell Khawaja Asif that he is very right. Taj Mahal, an ageing emperor’s whim, should not have been built in any

November 03, 2015
Khawaja Asif’s caustic remark: “If here had been a Planning Commission then, Taj Mahal would not have been built!” thankfully started a debate on this important issue.
First, let us tell Khawaja Asif that he is very right. Taj Mahal, an ageing emperor’s whim, should not have been built in any case. The Planning Commission was built to keep such whims in check.
Back to principles. Democracy and our modern form of government believe in checks and balances in all decisions. This means: a) due diligence – research and evidence collection – for presentation to a decision-making forum; and b) clear lines of responsibility between ministries to jealously look after their roles. If one ministry accumulates all power and decision-making then we go back to the arbitrary Shah Jehan rule that the world fought against for centuries to develop democracy.
Remember, the cabinet is a decision-making body with the PM as chair. The PM cannot and should not be making arbitrary decisions. Even then the cabinet has to take decisions within the law. Legal changes have to go to parliament. Democracy is a system not a vote.
As Mosharraf Zaidi appropriately summarised in his column recently, planning forums play an important decision-making role in keeping with the design of democracy.
Sadly it has now become routine for ministers to think that they have the divine right to development, especially development projects. Ministers must be told that their job is policymaking and participating in decision-making. That is where they set direction. Actually implementing, running and sighting development projects is a technical subject for expert diligence.
Our ministers still have a feudal mindset where they associate the job with arrogance, power and divine right. They don’t like any check on them. Faisal Bari had a very good column on how our ministers feel that regulation is a hurdle in their path to control markets. While in government I saw ministers do all they could to gain control of regulatory bodies.
Perhaps there should be some ministerial training on their role in a democratic system. Experience shows clear lines of demarcation. Ministries merely monitor and collect information to report to forums like parliament and the cabinet. Once in a while changes in policy through careful research and evidence collection are made to appropriate forums.
Regulatory bodies watch markets and see that the law is implemented, and follow the policies that have been enacted. Minsters and ministries have no role here.
Project implementation and public service delivery that follows from legislation and policy development is done in separate agencies beyond political control. This ensures impartiality in government service. Ministers should not have a role in this.
I have written many times that we need to review our architecture of governance if we want good decision-making. But what of planning?
My take: There are three main objectives of economic policy – growth, external and internal balance and inflation management. The current practice of all three being managed by one ministry may be the biggest folly of our poor governance.
Much literature exists to suggest that each government ministry should be a custodian of one goal. Hence central bank independence!
For the last 50 years our planning process has been broken with egocentric FMs also wanting the planning title and the all ministers wanting an unbridled control of their development budget. Our lacklustre unstable and declining long-run growth is obviously suggesting a different route.
The Ministry of Finance has its hands full managing a budget. Besides, when the budget runs into trouble – as it does every two months – the MoF instruments (often called mini-budgets – in reality austerity) all impact growth negatively. Some agency must be sitting at a decision-making forum contesting this approach to budget management.
The IMF suggests we should develop an independent central bank that manages inflation and an MOF that manages the budget and through it the internal and external balance.
But does ‘growth and development’ need an independent champion? Like the SBP it should be independent, staffed by competent professionals.
Call it what you will, we need some place where growth, development and employment are kept under review and policy initiatives for these objectives are presented to decision-making forums. If not then growth and development is a forgotten by-product of inflation and budget management.
We are a developing country. Our topmost priority needs to be economic growth and development. We must have an agency that thinks of growth and development.
Aid agencies also lobby against the PC. When I was in the PC, their refrain was that they wanted their PC1s approved without scrutiny. Yet they want better governance. They have a ‘country partnership strategy’ that is often at variance with PC plan documents. They run their own advocacy programmes, fund research that affects key policy like ‘trade with India’, set up their own NGOs and activities again independent of any government dialog.
The EAD is hungry for money without worrying about its impact on the economy. Donors freely retail whim and use expensive contractors and consultants as they like. Projects such as TARP, SAP, capacity-building, access to justice and several others, unsuccessful by their own evaluations, leave a loan to be repaid by our children.
In my view, the EAD needs serious review. At a minimum, donors should be reporting to a planning forum. They should not be able to set our policy agendas through advocacy and NGO funding unilaterally.
We need some agency to keep our development efforts coordinated and under review. And that was the PC. Now much battered and broken, can it do the job? Let the debate go on.
The writer is former deputy chairman of the Planning Commission.
Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @nadeemhaque