In May 2017, Bengaluru-based cab aggregator Ola launched a pilot of its electric vehicles project in Nagpur. The launch was important, not only because of the ambitions of the government but also the people present there. Union minister Nitin Gadkari and the chief minister of Maharashtra Devendra Fadnavis were both representing their individual constituencies in Nagpur.
Ola’s approach to solving the public transport problem in India has been different from its rival, Uber. So are its policy pitches to the government. For example, Ola’s entry into the electric vehicle (EV) segment. In contrast, Uber believes that peer-to-peer ride-sharing is the way forward. It took the lead when the draft of the cab aggregators policy was being discussed last year. The NITI Aayog, while in principle, endorsed Uber’s view in its recommendations, has been slightly conservative about its implementation, citing issues like employment and altering the definition of a commercial vehicle.
Typically, companies present their policy proposals to the NITI Aayog, in the hope that they get pushed and implemented. However, Ola bypassed the NITI Aayog to approach the ministry directly and take its EV mandate forward. What this demonstrated was that the NITI Aayog, beyond a point, does not have much clout. “Even though the NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant is personally powerful, people are realising that it doesn’t have the powers to move the needle, in terms of execution,” says a New Delhi-based public policy professional, who did not want to be named because he deals with the think-tank. “At best, it can push policy agendas through the body.”
He adds, “Uber can try what it wants, but Ola knows that the real power, politically speaking, lies in Nagpur. It’s no coincidence that it was able to push this through with minimum fuss and maximum publicity, even as the minister is from that region, while Uber is still trying to turn its peer-to-peer ride-sharing into reality.”
There is a growing belief among stakeholders that the NITI Aayog, in its two-and-a-half year existence, hasn’t exactly lived up to expectations. Others reckon that it’s too early to have a clear, defined verdict on the Aayog because its role is constantly evolving. Then there are those who believe that it isn’t getting due credit for some of the non-headline-making, behind-the-scenes reforms it has been pushing. And that it has made policy sexy again.
Many in the government and bureaucracy believe that the Aayog, in its present form, may be suffering from an underlying mission creep. There is inherent confusion about what its role is.
First, the NITI Aayog has been extending itself far beyond the role it was originally conceived for. In the aftermath of the government’s demonetisation drive in November 2016, it emerged as a key player in the propagation of digital payments. Initially, it was tasked with developing an action plan on advocacy, awareness and coordination.