The National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog that replaced the Planning Commission on the first day of this year has not taken off as the government’s premier think tank, proving to be a toothless body largely ignored by ministries.
Vice-chairman Arvind Panagariya, an academic from Columbia University, has settled down in a bureaucratic atmosphere where decision-making is dreadfully slow, though he has been trying hard.
Some of his ideas on getting the best Indian minds were negated amid rigid government rules and because the old guard at the erstwhile plan panel was unwilling to change the way things worked.
“He is a soft-spoken and mild-mannered person and sometimes that does not work with the Indian bureaucracy,” a senior government functionary commented on Panagariya’s personality.
Panagariya faced the usual roadblock for an outsider as senior officials ignored his invitations for meetings and deputed juniors, which never happened when Montek Singh Ahluwalia was Planning Commission's deputy chairman.
Panagariya’s appointment in the rank of a cabinet secretary, unlike Ahluwalia who was of cabinet minister rank, was seen as a reason behind that. It sent out a message the NITI Aayog was not an empowered body.
The government has now elevated the vice-chairman to cabinet minister rank and its members to that of minister of state.
Unlike the erstwhile panel that had eight members, Panagariya has a small team of two members -- Bibek Debroy and VK Saraswat -- and there have been no replacements for recently retired domain experts.
That may change soon as the government has accepted Panagariya's proposal to restructure the Aayog, which would mean cutting the number of existing personnel to one-third and hiring domain experts from India and abroad.
The Aayog will soon hire a chief economist and domain experts for nine sectors to be called officers on special duty.
Since the body does not have the power to disburse money to ministries and state governments as the Planning Commission did, bureaucrats cannot call the shots any more.
Silence greets one in the once bustling corridors of Yojana Bhawan. "We receive ministries’ requests for our opinion only on directions of the PM,” a senior official said.
The advice often has little or no bearing on the final policy formulation.