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An Agenda for NITI Aayog: Revitalising District Planning Committees

NITI Aayog needs to live up to its mission of making bottom-up planning a reality. PRIA’s work in strengthening District Planning Committees provides some lessons.

With the Narendra Modi government coming to power in May 2014, a slew of institutions, policies, programmes have been announced. One such is The National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog), which replaces the erstwhile Planning Commission. An important function conferred on NITI Aayog is: “To develop mechanisms to formulate credible plans at the village level and aggregate these progressively at higher levels of government.” As an “incubator and disseminator of fresh thought and ideas for development”, Niti Aayog can learn from field experiences of strengthening District Planning Committees (DPCs) to help fufill its mandate of restructuring the planning process into a workable bottom-up model.

India is fortunate in having a slew of institutions with legal mandates to support and facilitate its development and growth agenda. The DPC has the powerful mandate of aggregating village level plans, prepared through active participation of the gram sabha, and citizen-centric urban plans. By creating rural-urban linkages the DPC can help ensure equitable distribution and efficient use of all resources throughout a district. The DPC is a vital link in securing the voice of the people in planning, and capacitated DPCs which can perform their mandates effectively is necessary in ensuring citizen-centric planning.

Yet, how effective are DPCs currently? How successful are they in advancing the concerns and priorities of the people at the grassroots to state governments? Can DPC members perform their functions as per their mandated roles and responsibilities?

PRIA’s experience with strengthening the capacities of DPCs to fufill their mandates reveals a frustrating picture.  While most states have formally constituted DPCs, these have not been constituted as per constitutional provisions. Many DPCs do not hold meetings; majority of the members are not aware of their roles and responsibilities. When meetings are held, members who are aware of their responsibilities are often barred from carrying out their roles.  Meera Bai, member of the Tikamgarh DPC in Madhya Pradesh, can’t understand why she is called to attend DPC meetings if most of the discussions take place between the Chairperson and Secretary. “They don’t discuss relevant issues, and they are just not interested in hearing me. I want to participate and raise issues related to women, but no one on the committee is interested.” Balveer Mali, a DPC member representing Barmer Municipal Council, says, “I initially attended three meetings, but neither were the issues related to my municipality discussed nor I was heard. So I stopped attending DPC meetings.”

The system of having state ministers as chairpersons of DPCs severely hampers the participative nature of the planning process. This was highlighted during the ongoing study being carried out by PRIA in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Maharashtra. DPC members reported that decisions were unilaterally taken by the Minister-in-Charge without heeding suggestions from other members. Hence, the decisions often did not reflect popular opinion. In some states like Maharashtra, there is almost an equal number of special invitees as elected DPC members.

PRIA’s study has also brought forth other constrains in the effective functioning of DPCs. Rural-urban linkages in planning are hampered as rural and urban local bodies do not work together on a common platform during the planning process to identify common projects/resource requirements. Plans made in isolation cannot be implemented in an integrated manner. Urban local bodies have traditionally been oriented towards the state departments of urban development/Town and Country Planning Offices – hence plans are submitted to apex bodies for urban local bodies rather than DPCs.

Inter-sector coordination is also a problem since it is resisted on account of being against the status quo. For example, the planning process of schemes like NREGA, SSA, NRHM and JNNURUM, wherever undertaken, is often independent of annual planning at panchayat or municipal levels.

The decentralised planning process is not devoid of state influence. Local bodies cannot initiate the planning process till the state government issues guidelines for plan preparation. These guidelines often contain sectoral priorities and key issues to be addressed along with methodological instructions. These are binding on all local bodies and hence may actually hinder the independent nature of people’s planning.

How can the voice of the people be heard? Whether it is Swachch Bharat Abhiyan, SMART cities, or MGNREGA, all these schemes stress the need for people-centric planning and development. Consultations and capacity building initiatives carried out by PRIA indicate some practical steps to strengthen DPCs to enable people-centric planning:

  • Planning, implementation and monitoring of all schemes and programmes at the district and sub-district level must be under the purview of DPC. Necessary arrangements for the same must be built into the programme guidelines.

  • Adequate institutional, financial as well as human resource support for DPCs is required in order to enable them to perform their tasks effectively.
  • Capacity building of DPC members and officials is necessary in order to bring clarity in roles and responsibilities.

  • Orient rural and urban local bodies to long term vision and goals for the district.

  • Where there are multiple agencies for planning (land use planning, service delivery planning, etc), it is very important to ensure that all such multiple bodies carry out the planning exercise under the ambit of the DPC.

The larger purpose of integrated planning can also be derailed by the people themselves, who do not take into account the larger regional picture and pursue partisan individual interests. Thus, prior to the planning exercise, the people too need to be oriented towards holistic planning with a regional perspective.

When implemented in its true spirit, participatory planning comes as close to a form of direct democracy as possible. Niti Aayog must show the way.

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