By pushing the contentious land bill, did the panel reveal its true function?
What happened to Niti Aayog’s aim of promoting 'cooperative federalism'?

Photo Credit: IANS/PIB
When NITI Aayog, the successor to the Planning Commission, raised the issue of the contentious land bill in its meeting on July 15, it brought into question its much-touted claim of promoting “cooperative federalism”. A number of opposition-ruled states gave the meet a go-by, asserting that the panel is pushing a bill which is still being vetted by a 30-member joint committee of parliament.

At the first meeting of NITI Aayog’s governing council, held on February 8 this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had exhorted all chief ministers to work with the Centre to forge a model of cooperative federalism. By the second gathering, the cooperation bit had dissipated.

In the name of building consensus over the controversial land acquisition bill, NITI Aayog called on Wednesday a meeting of its governing council, which comprises all chief ministers and is headed by the prime minister. Antagonised by the declared agenda, nearly a dozen chief ministers of opposition-ruled states skipped the meeting. The episode became further politicised as Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley launched a scathing attack on the boycotting chief ministers.

Former member of the Planning Commission Abhijit Sen said there’s “nothing wrong in going with an open mind looking for a reasonable middle path to get all the chief ministers to discuss” the issue. “The point, however, is that one bloc of chief ministers of opposition-ruled states just stayed away,” he said. “Therefore, it has started looking as if it was playacting because you can’t have compromise without listening to the other side.”

‘Loss to the nation’

Another former Planning Commission member Mihir Shah told “I doubt whether NITI Aayog was ever in a position to promote cooperative federalism. The Planning Commission was potentially in a position to do what NITI Aayog is supposed to be. It was a unique institution which was both embedded in government and yet was outside it.

Shah continued: “It was the body which was supposed to come out with innovative ideas to solve problems which the implementers [governments] were not able to solve. That role, if it is there, will enable NITI Aayog to foster cooperative federalism. In current dispensation, I feel, the NITI Aayog does not have that kind of power or human resource.”

Unlike NITI Aayog, the Planning Commission had more leeway to handle different situations. Also, it met chief ministers individually rather than in a group. “The Planning Commission was also the secretariat of the National Development Council, which met two to four times a year and had all the chief ministers as its members,” said Sen. “But the agenda of the NDC was fixed in advance and all chief ministers had their written submissions. It never used to be as lacklustre as it appeared in the meeting of NITI Aayog.”

The failed meeting of NITI Aayog has revived debate over whether the Planning Commission and National Development Council were better suited to promote cooperative federalism.

“What is being done now, the NDC was doing earlier,” said Shah. “Of course, the NDC was not utilised in the manner it should have been, and the Planning Commission had many negative things which should have been eliminated. But this should not have led to the weakening of that institution. Potentially, I feel, the NITI Aayog has been considerably weakened compared to the former Planning Commission. I think that is a loss for the nation.”