NITI Aayog: The Role of a Policy Thinktank
NITI Aayog’s Vice-Chairman Rajiv Kumar explains the thinktank’s role in translating a dynamic policy shift into reality.
The Aayog with a Difference
NITI Aayog. An elegant name for a new era. NITI stands for National Institution for Transforming India, while ‘niti’ pleasingly at the same time means ‘policy’ in Sanskrit and Hindi. ‘Aayog’ means ‘Commission’.
When the Indian thinktank was constituted in January 2015, it was certainly not designed as a successor institution to the Planning Commission, whose goals, institutional framework, and instrumentalities for promoting the development agenda are qualitatively different. Rather, its formation reflected Prime Minister Modi’s vision of promoting both cooperative and competitive federalism. India had some ambitious development goals to achieve.
The critical feature of NITI Aayog is that both the central and state governments act as development partners. NITI Aayog’s principal mandate is therefore to forge meaningful partnerships with state governments, civil society organisations, the private sector, and innovators for accelerating the pace of India’s development. At the same time it empowers itself with all the intellectual fire power that can enable it to bring to bear transformative ideas for solving the challenges faced by the varied stakeholders, and their subsequent execution through the line ministries in either the centre or state governments. NITI Aayog therefore works as a thought partner with all stakeholders, especially states and union territories, which are the principal agents for fostering economic development. In a large and diversified country like India, this is clearly an effective approach to centralised planning.
NITI Aayog’s founding principles include cooperative federalism (collaboration between the central and state governments, replicating best practices) and competitive federalism (spurring healthy competition among states, through a system of ranking them across various indices). Both pillars of this dual mandate are complementary and are being implemented in tandem for guiding the centre and states towards shared objectives, albeit through customised approaches.
A Shared Vision
The Governing Council of NITI Aayog — comprising Chief Ministers and Lieutenant Governors of all States and Union Territories — is the premier body tasked with evolving a shared vision of national priorities and strategies in shaping the development narrative. NITI Aayog partners with States for designing and reviewing development plans. It also provides a platform for direct issue-based interaction between state governments and central ministries thereby helping quick resolution of outstanding issues.
To enable the inclusion of common regional issues and challenges in designing the development path for the constituent States, the NITI Forum for North East has been established and tangible sectoral proposals are being implemented by States in partnership with the North East Council. It is envisaged that similar to the NITI Forum for the North East, other regional councils of contiguous States could be formed in future. The first step has been taken through the formation of the Himalayan States Regional Council and the formation of a coalition of 13 central universities located in these States. These universities are taking up research on issues common to all the 13 Himalayan States.
NITI Aayog promotes competitive federalism principally through preparing and disseminating its sectoral indices in the public domain. The indices on water conservation, quality of school education, delivery of public health, state of innovation eco-system, export preparedness, and achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have attracted significant positive attention. Over the past four years, states have come to recognise the usefulness of these sector indices for improving their governance and improving accountability of their sector officials.
NITI Aayog’s Aspirational Districts Programme (ADP) was recently lauded by the United Nations Development Programme for enabling significant improvements in the 112 least developed districts of the country across health, nutrition, and education outcomes since its inception. ADP is the world’s largest initiative in results-based governance, covering 250 million people in 112 aspirational districts across India. The ADP model is focused on promoting competition among districts, enabling convergence of schemes, and fostering collaboration across and beyond government agencies.
The Development Monitoring and Evaluation Office (DMEO) office within NITI Aayog evaluates the performance of all line ministries on the basis of the output and outcomes achieved in the various central and centre-sponsored schemes. Additionally, DMEO reviews the progress of infrastructure departments of the central government for periodic review by the prime minister. In order to improve governance at all levels of government, DMEO is collaborating with state governments for establishing similar capacity. Additionally, NITI Aayog has been closely monitoring the progress of SDGs across all states as well as engaging with them to set up real-time technology-based monitoring capacities.
NITI Aayog has made and is continuously engaged in providing fresh policy-related inputs for implementation by relevant central government ministries. It was involved with the drafting of the National Medical Commission Bill, as well as the Bills for reforming the education system pertaining to Indian Systems of Medicine and Homeopathy. All three Bills have been passed by both houses of Parliament, paving the way for building a world-class medical education system in the country.
NITI Aayog has also been closely involved with the design and monitoring of Ayushman Bharat, perhaps the largest universal health initiative in the world. A similar key role has been played by NITI Aayog in the POSHAN Abhiyaan scheme that was launched by the government to provide an appropriate governance structure reflecting the many overlapping factors like access to sanitation and health services that affect the nutritional status of an individual or household. The reforms of the higher education system, recently announced as part of the National Education Policy, were also initiated in NITI Aayog. Universal health, agriculture sector modernisation, renewable energy, electric mobility, reforms of the mining sector as well as the campaign against women and child malnutrition are some examples of areas where NITI Aayog has made substantive policy inputs during its six-year existence.
Data is the New Oil
Given that data is the new oil, NITI Aayog is working on modernising India’s data system through the creation of a National Data and Analytics Platform, a user-centric web platform that aims to enable effective use of government data. The NDAP portal will be launched in January 2022 with 400 completely verified and user friendly data sets for use by the research and policy making communities.
To position India as a global leader in the use of futuristic technologies, NITI Aayog is focused on establishing a robust ecosystem that nurtures innovation, promotes democratisation in the development of emerging technologies, while enabling their seamless adoption for improving the ease of living and ease of doing business.
Atal Innovation Mission (AIM) is a flagship initiative of NITI Aayog for promoting innovation and entrepreneurship across the country. AIM has adopted a holistic approach towards establishing an integrated ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship at school, university, industry levels, linking NGOs, venture capital and private industries in the process. AIM promotes an innovative mindset in school students through Atal Tinkering Labs (ATLs) that feed into start-ups fostered by the Atal Incubation Centres (AICs). Around 7,500 ATLs have already been established thus far, covering 35 states and union territories in India. The goal is to establish 10,000 ATLs by the end of 2022 and ramp up to 50,000 over the next five years. Over the last four years, ATLs have given 2.4 million students access to the latest technologies and ignited new ideas.
A Trusted Partner
To achieve the goal of rapid, sustained, and clean growth that generates employment for all, investing in the right physical and social infrastructure, is a prerequisite. NITI Aayog, with its intellectual breadth and depth, is well-placed to help India achieve these goals. Over the last six years, many bold reforms have been undertaken by the Central Government. India cannot grow faster unless States grow at higher rates. The time has come for States to implement these reforms in letter and spirit, so as to help the country reach the next frontier of growth.
In this process, States can count on NITI Aayog as a partner for customising and implementing these pathbreaking reforms, including reducing compliance burden, weeding out archaic legislations, and unleashing the full potential of private sector participation.
Ultimately, the onus of putting India on a high-growth trajectory and ensuring that the benefits of growth are equitably distributed rests with both the Centre and States. NITI Aayog will continue to work towards strengthening cooperative federalism, thereby enabling the Centre and States to work in tandem as equal partners for ensuring India’s success
Assistance by Urvashi Prasad is gratefully acknowledged.
Dr Rajiv Kumar is the Vice-Chairman of NITI Aayog, in the rank and status of a Cabinet Minister. He also serves as the Chancellor of Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune. His earlier stint in government was initially with the Ministry of Industry and subsequently in the Ministry of Finance, as Economic Adviser during the reform years of 1991-1994. He also served as an independent director on the central boards of the Reserve Bank of India and the State Bank India. He has wide experience of having worked in government, academia, industry associations, as well as in international financial institutions. Dr Kumar has a PhD in Economics from Lucknow University, India and a DPhil from Oxford University, U.K..