The much publicised debut of the Planning Commission on Google Hangout - when it answered questions from an invited panel through video chat - was a mixed success. Deputy Chairman of the Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia
, National Innovation Council Chairman Sam Pitroda, most members and senior officials of the Commission were all present. Ahluwalia opened the interaction with an introductory talk explaining the relevance of the five year plans the Commission prepares, while his team fielded questions on education, health-care, the employment scenario, the need for skill development and more.
While a key focus of the 11th Plan (2007 to 2012) had been education, in the 12th Plan (2013 to 2018) it is health-care. On education, Ahluwalia noted that while enrolment had risen during the Plan period, the quality of education imparted remained a concern. He also assured that the power situation was rapidly improving and that the country was unlikely to have any power cuts at all in another three to four years.
Among the panel of questioners, the Chairman of biotechnology firm Biocon, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw had an interesting query. Was it possible, she asked, to provide a yearly report card of the targets achieved in different sectors compared with the targets set in the five year plans? Ahluwalia replied in the negative - it would be difficult to measure results on an annual basis.
Pitroda took the opportunity to announce a "hackathon" in the first week of April during which the general public will be invited to share their ideas on the 12th Plan with the Commission.
A disquieting feature was that a number of questions put to the Planning Commission seemed rehearsed. A sarpanch from a Rajasthan village, for instance, in a question that seemed far from spontaneous, first extolled the virtues of technology in the rural areas, before seeking details on education and health-care related measures planned for the rural areas.
But the main embarrassment came at the end of the session. Just as Ahluwalia and Pitroda had begun to look visibly relieved at it having gone off without a glitch, one of the Commission members, Syeda Hamid, was observed asking on camera whether she was still "alive". She meant "live" no doubt, but without verifying if indeed the cameras had stopped recording, she went on to call the Hangout effort "elitist". In fact the cameras recorded it all.