Mr. N.K. Singh, a distinguished Indian politician, renowned economist, and former IAS officer, presently serving as the Chairman of the 15th Finance Commission of India, engaged in an insightful conversation with the council members of The Planning Forum in the year 2021.
This exclusive interview delves into his multifaceted career, spanning diplomacy, public service, politics, and economic policy, offering profound perspectives on various aspects of his journey.
In this interview, Mr. N.K. Singh reflected on the changes in college over the years. He noted that while certain aspects like the identity of college buildings and hostels remain constant, admission cutoff marks have risen significantly due to increased competition. Furthermore, he highlighted the change in preferred academic disciplines, with economics now being highly sought after compared to his time when history and political science were favourites. Regarding the philosophy prevalent in campus, he mentioned that during his time, informality and congeniality between faculty and students were valued, fostering a unique atmosphere at St. Stephen's College.
Shifting to his role as President of the Institute of Economic Growth (IEG), Mr. Singh discussed the need to address contemporary challenges such as global warming and climate change. He emphasised the importance of embracing technology and integrating various disciplines into one common format, as well as being adaptable. In particular, he pointed out how the pandemic had served to highlight the need for improved health infrastructure, and also how agricultural practices require continuous adaptation to changing consumer preferences and environmental concerns.
When asked about criticisms of international organisations favouring developed countries, Mr. N.K. Singh acknowledged the historical biases in these organisations and stressed the need to restructure them to better reflect current global economic dynamics.
Mr. N.K. Singh then mentioned that he joined the Indian Civil Service in 1964 after teaching at St. Stephen's College. He started his career in this field in the Indian Foreign Service, but switched to the Indian Administrative Service later. His decision to enter politics stemmed from his desire to gain an alternate perspective on India's governance. He noted the distinct views from the executive and legislative ends and felt it was an alluring and challenging experience.
His role in the Rajya Sabha also provided him with firsthand insight into parliamentary proceedings, going beyond merely observing them. He mentioned that seeing policy changes from the inside was a valuable experience. He expressed gratitude for being offered a seat in the Rajya Sabha by the then-Chief Minister.
When asked how his bureaucratic experience contributed to his political career,
Mr. N.K. Singh stated that it provided a holistic view of policy-making. His role as Chairman of the 15th Finance Commission showed him the legislative processes required for policy implementation. His parliamentary experience allowed him to understand the implications of policy changes that might necessitate legislation. He highlighted the significance of parliamentary committees like the Public Accounts Committee and how, as Revenue Secretary, he had testified before such committees, creating a full-circle experience when he became a member of the Public Accounts Committee.
During the interview, when asked if he sees himself standing for election in the future, Mr. N.K. Singh categorically denied any such possibility. He explained that he has had a diverse range of experiences in diplomatic assignments, state and central government roles, the Prime Minister's office, and his position as the Chairman of the Finance Commission. He deemed these experiences sufficient for one lifetime. Additionally, he revealed his current plans, which include writing two books—one compiling his recent lectures and the other focusing on federalism and fiscal federalism, subjects that have always intrigued him.
Regarding his role as Chairman of the 15th Finance Commission, Mr. N.K. Singh acknowledged that they faced several significant challenges. He highlighted the complexity of implementing the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and the associated issues such as determining state revenues under the new taxation system. He also mentioned the challenge of using the 2011 census data for resource allocation, which led to a controversy, particularly related to states with differing demographic management performance. He explained how they balanced considerations of equity, efficiency, and performance in their decision-making, emphasising that the Finance Commission's role involves a delicate balancing act.
In response to our interviewers' questions about his experience as a member of the Planning Commission and his views on its dissolution and the unification of planned and unplanned expenditure, Mr. N.K. Singh explained that he believed the distinction between planned and unplanned expenditure had outlived its purpose since the Planning Commission's inception. He discussed how the Planning Commission was created shortly after India's independence, focusing on the model of socialism and the importance of public sector-led development due to the nascent state of private capital and entrepreneurial skills. Despite calls for restructuring the Planning Commission, this did not happen.
He continued to discuss the non-statutory nature of the Planning Commission and its function as an extra-constitutional authority, taking on roles that overlapped with the Finance Commission. Successive finance commissions raised concerns about this overlap, and the decision to abolish the Planning Commission in 2014 was welcomed as long overdue. He mentioned the possibility of a different transition model, such as a restructured Niti Aayog or an entity like the Centre State Council.
In response to the interviewers' question about his college days and the impact of St. Stephen's College on his life, he expressed his sadness at the current generation's inability to fully experience their college due to the pandemic. He acknowledged the importance of prioritising lives and public health over such experiences and highlighted that similar situations were affecting students worldwide. He emphasised the value of friendships, informal interactions, and unique experiences that college life brings, and expressed hope that the current students would soon get a taste of this for themselves.
He felt confident that they would make up for the lost experiences as soon as the pandemic subsides. He also shared his own involvement in the college's activities, such as his membership in the Criterion and Shakespeare Society, and encouraged students to acquaint themselves with both the institutional and experiential aspects of St. Stephen's.
The interviewers expressed their gratitude to Mr. N.K. Singh for his time, and he reciprocated by expressing his appreciation for the thoughtful questions, thereby marking the end of an enriching and illumination dialogue with one of Stephen's finest.