The media have reported that the government of India is abandoning the five-year planning process that the country has used for over 60 years. Instead, the National Institution for Transforming India (the NITI Aayog), will prepare a 15-year vision document.

This a good idea. A process of making five-year plans and allocating resources from the Centre may have been appropriate in the years immediately after India’s Independence; when the country’s resources were scarce, and were largely with the public sector – the private sector being small then; when the Indian states were weaker than they are now; and when India was, and could be, isolated from the global economy. The replacement of five-year budgetary plans, with another process fit for a more open country in a dynamic global economy, was overdue.

It has been reported that the 15-year vision document will formulate ways through which India can achieve its broader social objectives to meet the United Nation’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. This is welcome too, though this will not be a radical change because the goals of the last two five-year plans already were sustainable and inclusive growth.

The radical change is the replacement of a five-year plan combined with resource allocations with a 15-year vision without budgets. Prima facie, this seems a fuzzy idea. Firstly, if five-year plans were becoming untenable because they could not anticipate changes in the economy beyond the first couple of years, how can 15-year long projections work? Secondly, if a plan with budgets attached could not compel sufficient action, how will commitment to the vision be ensured through the changes in government that can happen with several elections over 15 years? In short, will the vision be just a document – a piece of paper with even less effect on the course of India’s development than the fve-year plans had?

It's how you get there

The answer is, it depends on the process used to produce the vision and to develop pathways to it. Visions are useful for what they do. Powerful visions align people voluntarily towards shared goals they aspire for. The power to align themselves comes when the vision is their own. Moreover, in dynamically changing situations, internally and externally, while a vision may remain stable, plans to achieve the vision must be changeable. Therefore, rather than providing maps with pre-defined paths, the outcome of planning should be a compass with which leaders can steer systems through change.

There is a big difference in the powers of a shared vision compared with a vision shared. A vision developed by experts, or a leader at the top, and then given to the rest, is a vision shared. It can point to an attractive star. But such a vision does not have sufficient gravitational force to compel action that a shared vision, in the development of which people have participated, can have. Whereas a vision shared must be translated to the people, a shared vision is shaped in their own terms as it is evolved.

The last Planning Commission had searched for methods of planning for 21st century India. It tested new methods of scenario planning to supplement the conventional five-year plans it was required to make. Scenarios are not predictions. They are plausible views of what the country will be like, 10 or 15 years out, depending on the directions big forces in the environment may take, and on the policies adopted by the country. Thus scenario planning helps policy-makers to steer, and to determine which policies will produce the most favorable outcomes in a dynamic environment.

The most desirable of the three plausible scenarios of India, projected by the Planning Commission, was titled “The Flotilla Advances”. It produced the most inclusive outcomes as well as the fastest growth. The other scenarios, which produced slower, as well as less inclusive and less sustainable growth, were called “Muddling Along” and “Falling Apart”. The titles of the scenarios point to the processes by which inclusive growth must be produced in diverse and democratic India. The states and private sectors cannot be directed from the center any more. Their leaders steer their own ships. All must share a vision of where they are going. And scenarios suggest to them the paths they should follow to get there. An architecture of policies required to align the flotilla and to produce the best outcomes was also derived from the systems’ analysis.

What experience shows

The Bertelsmann Foundation of Germany has made a world-wide study of “Winning Strategies for a Sustainable Future”. It studied 35 countries around the world that appear to be leaders in developing strategies for sustainable growth. It examined the quality of their strategies, the frameworks for implementation, and results so far. Bertelsmann found two essential features in the processes used by the leaders.

The first is that sustainability policy derives from an overriding concept and guiding principles that are made to permeate significant areas of politics and society. And the “best practice” to make this happen is to get specific in national debates on a new score-card of progress. The UN’s 16 development goals with their 169 sub-goals cannot be imposed on the people. Countries must develop their own specific score-cards for their own conditions albeit conforming with the goals.

The second requirement for success, Bertelsmann’s study found, is that sustainability policy must be developed and implemented in a participatory manner. Therefore, the task for countries is to develop new participatory formats for planning. Not only must large numbers of people be engaged, but different constituents must listen to each other to develop an integrative vision of the future of the country.

For a 15-year vision to keep successive governments on course, it must be a vision that people believe in. It must be the people’s shared vision with their participation in it. The vision cannot be just a good document which a new government can tear up and write another. The goals must matter to people and be expressed in terms they understand. Then only will pressure from the people compel new governments to stay on course towards it.

Also, a process based on systems thinking, rather than linear planning, is required to understand the interplay of social, political, and economic forces to foresee the scenarios they will produce, and to describe the paths for the flotilla to steer towards its vision through dynamic changes in the environment.

The conclusion is that the NITI Aayog’s 15-year vision document will not matter as much the process by which the vision and the directions to it will emerge. The process used will determine whether the vision, and the programmes and policies it recommends, will accelerate the progress of the country towards its goals of sustainable and inclusive development.

Arun Maira is a management consultant and former member of Planning Commission of India.