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Besides the burnished name?

In the backdrop of its recently conducted fifth meeting, what purpose does the NITI Aayog meet serve?

Besides the burnished name?
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What did the recently concluded NITI Aayog meet chaired by the Prime Minister of India achieve in real terms? How many of its recommendations of the past four meetings were considered by the Union government with real help being extended to states which were described by the PM as members of Team India? Like in the earlier four meetings, the fifth meeting was also expected to discuss important subjects. The council, the apex body of NITI Aayog, includes all Chief Ministers, Lieutenant Governors of Union Territories, several Union Ministers and senior government officials.

Headed by the Prime Minister, the Governing Council meets regularly, and its first meeting took place on February 8, 2015. In the first meeting, the Prime Minister laid down the key mandates of NITI Aayog such as fostering cooperative federalism and addressing national issues through active participation of the states. The second meeting of council on July 15, 2015, reviewed the progress made by the three sub-groups of Chief Ministers and the two task forces.

In the third meeting of the council on April 23, 2017, Modi had pitched for conducting simultaneous elections of the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies and shifting to a January-December fiscal year. The fourth meeting of the council on June 17, 2018, deliberated upon measures taken to double farmers' income and the progress of government's flagship schemes. None of the outcomes of those meetings took real shape in effect.

The fifth meeting among others discussed subjects including major issues concerning water management, agriculture, and aspirational district programme. Besides, the council also deliberated on security issues in districts impacted by left-wing extremism in states like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.

The best example of flouting NITI Aayog recommendations is that of Telangana State wherein despite it recommending a grant of Rs 24,000 crores for Mission Bhagiratha and Mission Kakatiya, the Centre did not give even a single rupee. Even for the world's largest multi-stage lift irrigation, Kaleshwaram Project, which will provide assured irrigation to 45 lakhs of acres in Telangana besides meeting drinking water and industrial water requirements, the Centre has not given a single rupee despite the NITI Aayog recommendation.

Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao, during the third NITI Aayog meeting, pitched for various measures to pull the farming sector in the country out of distress. CM brought to the notice of NITI Aayog and PM about several steps to address the agrarian distress and to revive the farm sector in Telangana and to revamp the rural economy by reviving traditional activities such as sheep rearing, fisheries dairy, etc. KCR requested the Central government support to such initiatives by the state governments to address the agrarian distress. Nothing happened subsequently.

At the fourth meeting of NITI Aayog, Chief Minister KCR asked the Centre to encourage fast-growing states such as Telangana by giving tax incentives if additional devolution of funds linked to performance is not possible as the prosperity of the country lies in the growth of states. He also wanted to link the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) to agriculture as part of the need to focus on agriculture and allied activities as an integrated sector. Stressing on the need of cooperative federalism, often talked about by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the CM wanted more freedom to states in the implementation of schemes in the areas such as health, education, urban development, agriculture, and rural development. CM also mentioned about Telangana's Rythu Bandhu scheme. No concrete steps were initiated to take cognizance of CM KCR's suggestions nor, for that matter, any other CM's suggestions.

In fact, CM while participating in a discussion on "Emerging Markets at Cross Roads" at the World Economic Forum Meeting in China in September 2015, strongly supported initiatives of PM and his concept of NITI Aayog. He said, "In place of the earlier Planning Commission an organisation called NITI Aayog consisting of all the Chief Ministers of all the states with Prime Minister as its Chairman has come into existence. We call this as Team India. With Prime Minister as Chairman and CMs as members, we all together plan the development of the country as a whole and also the states' development as well". Is it happening the way he anticipated then?

Against this background, the fifth meeting of the Governing Council of NITI Aayog was held under the Chairmanship of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Rashtrapati Bhawan on June 15. It was attended by 26 chief ministers and others. Telangana CM did not attend the meeting may be due to preoccupation with prior commitments. As usual, setting the tone of the meeting, PM mentioned about Team India concept and highlighted with all lofty narratives of the importance of NITI Aayog meet as a platform to inspire cooperative federalism, to collectively combat poverty, unemployment, drought, pollution, pockets of under-development and all such factors that constrain India's progress.

As in the earlier four meetings, PM welcomed constructive discussion and suggestions made by various Chief Ministers and assured the Council that these suggestions would be seriously considered in the course of the decision-making. There was broad consensus on reducing water wastage, promoting efficient water conservation practices across states, with rain-water harvesting to be undertaken at the household and community level with proactive policy and investment support. Various Chief Ministers presented best practices from their respective states which can serve as templates for replication across the country. The Council also deliberated upon a closely related and deeply important issue of drought management and associate relief measures. It also reviewed the implementation of the Aspirational Districts Programme. PM also reaffirmed the commitment of the government to combat left-wing extremism.

As usual, the courtesies were exchanged and the Prime Minister thanked chief ministers for their suggestions and reiterated that the Union government is keen to partner with states and work together for India's development.

The NITI Aayog which was mandated with fostering cooperative federalism through structured support initiatives and mechanisms with states on a continuous basis, recognising that strong states make a strong nation has not been successful in its objective. Though it seeks to design and assist the implementation of strategic, long-term policy frameworks and programme initiatives of state governments, it never gives any proper directive to the Union government to realise this. The Governing Council, which is supposed to embody the objective of cooperative federalism seldom adheres to it.

(The author is Chief PRO to Telangana CM. Views expressed are strictly personal)

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