Restructuring The National Planning Commission
The idea of economic planning emerged in the world from the Soviet Union in the late 1920s. Assuming that the state is a principal actor of development and has strong institutions and agencies to make best use of the resources, this planning model flourished across the globe.
By the 1960s, most of the nations had adopted this approach to accelerate their development and prosperity. But since the 1980s, pure state-led planning has been deemed unsuitable to cater to the changing aspirations of the people. With the erosion of public faith in the state bureaucracy and lacklustre progress of public enterprises, discussion of remodeling this practice has surfaced to include other stakeholders of the society in the entire cycle of planning.
The history of planned development in Nepal can be traced back to 1956 when the first five-year plan was formulated with major focus on improving communication and transportation infrastructure. Since then, twelve development plans have been implemented under different political regimes. Currently, the 13th three-year plan is under implementation, which has the ambitious vision of graduating Nepal from the status of Least Developed Country to that of a developing one by 2022, which is looking impossible against the backdrop of a deteriorating economy.
Despite the fact that six decades of state-led planning have been practised in Nepal, substantial outcomes in the major fields of development remain elusive till date. Although some progress has been made towards expanding infrastructure, i.e. roads, communication and certain improvements in the field of education and health, these have often remained inadequate, lop-sided and unsustainable. None of these plans could achieve their targets except the Sixth Five-year Plan. While the goals have always looked lofty and pleasing on paper, from poverty eradication, good governance to social inclusion, achievements have been rather dismal.
Several reasons can be traced in this regard. One of the prominent causes is the lack of realistic targets and inability to adjust the plans with the socio-economic realities of the country. Excessive dependence on foreign aid and grant have aggravated the situation. Absence of a strong political will for translating the vision into action and the unavailability of a friendly public bureaucracy have stifled planning innovations. The apathetic attitude of the state towards the private sector and civil society organisations, which has slightly improved after 1990, is yet to deliver meaningful results based on public-private collaboration and help achieve the targetted goals.
At this juncture, it is important to ponder upon the rationale of such planning efforts. More importantly, the role of the National Planning Commission (NPC), an advisory body also entrusted to formulate macro plans for broader socio-economic welfare, needs careful assessment.
The functions of the NPC have come under a great deal of criticism for several reasons. Firstly, the organisation structure has been hugely debated. The NPC still looks more like a typical bureaucratic institution, with more process orientation than result focussed. This is evidenced by the fact that there are insufficient cells within the NPC engaging in rigorous intellectual thinking and practice.
Secondly, resources have been misappropriated to cater to the budgetary needs of the influential political leaders or parliamentarians. There are many instances in our planning history where the politicians have exerted undue pressure on the NPC to get budgets for their constituencies and please their loyal sycophants.
Thirdly, appointments based on political patronage rather than merit have affected the performance of the institution. Amid this scenario, the planning authorities tend to undermine the need of intense homework and preparation, including comparative studies and desk research, to set a realistic and achievable vision and goals. The intuitive style of decision making has done no good for the country. Consequently, a utopian plan is being drafted with tall promises only to fool the general public.
With repeated underperformance of the NPC throughout the planning history, voices of reengineering the institution to make it more outcome-oriented have become strong.
However, some staunch critics question the need of the NPC and have called for dissolving the commission altogether. The argument is that various countries are seeking policy inputs and feedback from academic think tanks to systematise planning efforts in the present world. Even our immediate neighbour India has scrapped the commission and relied upon such expert groups for expediting the planning process. They question the reliability and validity of the command economic model, i.e. the state as a principal actor in the modern era of Liberalisation, Privatisation and Globalisation.
Having said that, the NPC still can be a catalyst body to realise the broader national vision of a just, prosperous and modern Nepal if immediate actions are taken to redesign its organisational structure. Granting full autonomy and appointment of non-partisan experts instead of political henchmen should be immediately put into practice. Global learning and exposures to NPC authorities should be provisioned to enhance their intellectual capacity and help them design an implementable plan. A strong political will and true statemanship is a prerequisite for this.