Mujhe Abhi Chahiye!!!
NITI Aayog Retrospective Series - Part 3
Let me set some context. As I was finishing up my Masters thesis in NUS, I was also on the lookout for jobs back in India. Around the same time, NITI Aayog put out a call for its next cohort of Young Professionals. I applied, and a
3 min 45 sec interview later, I was hired (more on this later! 😉). I landed back in India on a Friday and joined NITI Aayog the next Monday.
Main reason I joined NITI Aayog? - I didn’t have anything else lined up at that point. It was also because I had previously worked in the same building as an Intern when it was known as the Planning Commission of India. To say that I cherish that experience even now would be an understatement. I got to work with one of the sharpest bureaucrats I’ve ever known in my life, Ms. Anjali Goyal, 1985 IRAS officer. That memory kept me hopeful about my new stint.
So it was really a surprise for me when I realised that work in NITI Aayog (and in a few ministries I interacted with), is mostly a last minute job. I felt like I was back in college when almost all assignments were completed after an all-nighter. All of this stems from one sentence - Mujhe Abhi Chahiye!!!. No matter how complicated the task is, or how nuanced, you are likely to be bombarded by these insane last minute commands.
Is this without its costs? No. A few of them are listed below.
Proof-reading is so old-school
In September 2018, NITI Aayog organised the MOVE - Global Mobility Summit. While the whole story of summit will run into a multi-volume encyclopaedia, let me just share a snippet here. At 8:30 p.m. on September 5, barely 36 hours before the Prime Minister’s inaugural address, we were furiously putting together nearly 5000 invite cards. The guests won’t be allowed entry without these.
What’s in a name?
In the 2018 Independence Day Speech, Prime Minister announced the launch of a government funded health insurance scheme for the poor. Two or three days before the speech, I remember getting information that it’d be launched, and its name is Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Abhiyan. We had to be prepared with a few sound-bites from our Vice Chairman and CEO, to be posted after the launch. Within days of the launch, PM-JAA became PM-JAY. Someone realised, that going into an election year with PM-जय! was much better than PM-जा! (Below, video of the PM launching the scheme with its original name.)
Last minute assignment: GDP Back-series
Perhaps the most bizarre experience I had at NITI Aayog has to be the release of GDP back-series. A bit of context.
Every few years or so, the methodology for calculation of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has to be changed to accommodate new and improved datasets, change in consumption patterns etc. In 2015, the government changed the methodology and started releasing GDP numbers based on the new methodology. However, this meant that comparison of GDP data between new and old methods is not possible. Therefore, the Central Statistics Office had to calculate a back-series to ensure that comparisons can still be made.
Now, I cannot comment on the methodology or the numbers - that’s a highly technical debate. What I can say is this. NITI Aayog announced a press conference at 4 p.m. on November 12, 2018 to release the GDP back-series. The Press Conference was to follow a round-table discussion between NITI Aayog, CSO, and several experts. However, the press meet was cancelled at the last minute. The Indian Express report is quite accurate - the experts had a few questions and clarifications to seek from the CSO. When the answers were not forthcoming, they had to cancel the meeting.
What happened inside was mind-blowing. With just 15 minutes to go for the press conference, CSO staffers opened up a spreadsheet on their laptop and started working on the back-series data! 😮 IS THIS HOW THE NATION’S GDP NUMBERS ARE BEING CALCULATED? 😵 Of course, last minute work did not get submitted to the public on that day, fortunately. Finally, it was released on November 28, 2018.
Always wondered why we have so many “efficient” bureaucrats and politicians who work for 16-18 hours a day, and yet our country’s progress has not matched to the advertised levels. May be there’s a big confusion. Quick work is $\neq$ efficient work. Mujhe Abhi Chahiye!!! comes from the entitlement of power - that whatever I command shall be done, irrespective of the logic of that action, or the amount of work that’s involved in it.
This is not limited to New Delhi. It’s a nation-wide phenomenon. My wife gets random commands - stuff that’s impossible to do at all, or not do well at all in the time available to do it. More often than not, these last minute works end up taking up more time later on, to correct the earlier mistakes.
So if any senior bureaucrat or politician is reading, kindly change your ways. Your command for “instant results” are taking our country backwards.