In defence of the National Advisory Council

My latest livemint column is up today
The National Advisory Council (NAC) is often papered with criticism from many quarters. Some of the unfavourable terms used to describe it are: extra-constitutional body, a vehicle for populist agendas, kitchen cabinet, etc. In spite of all this criticism, I believe that a body such as NAC serves an important purpose and deserves to carry on, even if that doesn’t suit some sections of policymakers and analysts.
The NAC exists to provide inputs in the ‘formulation of policy by the government’ and bring a ‘special focus on social policy and the rights of the disadvantaged groups’. The council’s unique influence naturally is down to the fact that it is headed by the ruling Congress party’s president Sonia Gandhi—a fact that also leaves it susceptible to political attacks. A quick review of its members’ credentials would reveal that the council comprises almost wholly of people who are active in the ‘social development’ and ‘justice and rights’ space; but they are also activists, academics, former bureaucrats or from the industry. Some of the recent NAC interventions have been the Food Security Bill and Universal Health Coverage, while their previous recommendations shaped big schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). It has also been active in making regular recommendations to the government on improvements to the Right to Education, strengthening panchayats in tribal areas, livelihoods of small-holder farmers, development of the North East, rights of the disabled, etc.
One complaint against NAC is that it comprises individuals from civil society who do not enjoy the legitimacy of electoral representation. It is true that the NAC members are not elected, but this does not devalue the role of the NAC members’ suggestions that contribute to drafting pro-poor legislation. In many ways, NAC could just be one of the many task forces that the Prime Minister patronizes or those that exist in the Planning Commission, all of which are also ‘extra-constitutional bodies’.
Some energy has also been spent decrying the pre-legislative process suggested by NAC. The council is by no means suggesting a referendum on every proposed law. What it is asking for in fact is to widen the process of consultations, partly implying that the lawmaking process needs to open up to a group wider than NAC itself. In fact, as long as proposed laws go through the established systems of legislative passage, one can safely hold that NAC is not stepping on anyone’s toes in the lawmaking process.
Most of the criticism of NAC stems from the impression that it only advocates populist schemes that are wasteful and place a huge fiscal burden on the government exchequer.
Let us look at the existing subsidies. In the eleventh plan period, subsidies have accounted for over 15% of the total budgetary expenditure. Long-standing subsidies on food and fertilizer make up the lion’s share of these subsidies—ideas that pre-date NAC. In fact, one of the recent recommendations of NAC has been on improving the institutional capacity of the government administrative machinery in implementing its existing schemes. This is an area that requires inputs from those who have direct experience in the field and working with communities—and not just those of urban armchair economists and analysts. It is easy to forget that trapped between profit-mongering private enterprises and a lackadaisical government, it is the poor that have it the worst. There are thousands of crores that are spent in the name of the poor, but the leakages in the system mean that the benefits that actually reach them are scarce.
NAC is in the news once again as Aruna Roy, one of the leading civil society activists in the country, declined to renew her membership with the council. With a rich history of people’s movements and campaigns such as the Right to Information behind her, Aruna Roy represents a respected voice in our society. One of her chief contentions is that the government, in recent times, has switched its focus from empowerment of the poor and capacity building of local populations and local institutions, to easy technocratic solutions.
Now there are many arguments one can make, but it is undeniable that the recent push for Direct Benefits Transfer for instance has tended to ignore systemic threats to the effective and inclusive implementation of government schemes. How much importance we attribute to this view depends on where we stand with respect to these policy debates. However, stifling a voice that unequivocally speaks for the poor is no solution.
Finally, NAC recognizes that its interventions are only suggestions to the policymaking process of the government. NAC does not claim any powers over lawmaking or take away from the sovereign right of the Parliament to legislate. So why should NAC be scrapped? Is it because we are afraid of a lobby that is dedicated to the interests of the poor? Quite possibly, yes, and that is an unfortunate commentary on the state of our country today.

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