ABC of autonomy

Questions about the transparency and accountability of autonomous bodies must be answered.

Written by Bibek Debroy | Published:July 13, 2017 12:17 am
autonomous bodies, autonomous bodies accountability, Ratan Watal, Committee for Review of Autonomous Bodies, Right to Information Act, CAG Compliance Report, indian express news, india news, opinion Instinctively, everyone understands the word “autonomy” and hence, “autonomous body”.

There is a Committee for Review of Autonomous Bodies (ABs), chaired by Ratan Watal. The committee’s interim report is not in the public domain. Media reports and comments on what the committee has recommended, even in the interim, are therefore premature. They are uninformed and misinformed. This choice of words should remind you of a quote ascribed to Mark Twain. “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re misinformed.” The choice of quote is deliberate, since there is no evidence Twain ever said, or wrote, anything of the kind. The quote itself is uninformed and misinformed.

Instinctively, everyone understands the word “autonomy” and hence, “autonomous body”. However, private enterprise is also self-governing and independent of direct government influence or control. Therefore, if a review is being contemplated, there must be something beyond notions of self-governance and self-rule. The Right to Information Act’s definition of “public authority” provides some inkling of what one is after. “Public authority means any authority or body or institution of self-government established or constituted (a) by or under the Constitution; (b) by any other law made by Parliament; (c) by any other law made by State Legislature; (d) by notification issued or order made by the appropriate Government, and includes any (i) body owned, controlled or substantially financed; (ii) non-government organisation substantially financed, directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate government”.

If we leave out NGOs, we have ingredients of a definition. First, an AB is set up by the government for a specific purpose. Second, it is independent in day-to-day functioning, but the government has some control over ABs. Third, the government funds ABs in some way — revenue expenditure, capital expenditure, or both. In 2012, the CAG Compliance Report for ABs, Report No. 33 of 2011-12, stated: “During 2010-11, the ministries of the Union Government released grants/loans aggregating Rs 46,449.48 crore to 496 autonomous bodies.” Note that these are 2010-11 figures. Incidentally, we are talking about Union government-level ABs and the Ratan Watal Committee is also about such outfits. There are other ABs at the state government level.

In 1955, there were 35 ABs. Today, there are at least 679 ABs. I used the expression “at least” deliberately. We have information about 679 ABs. The actual number of ABs could be marginally more. The oldest is clearly The Asiatic Society, established in 1784 by William Jones. In those days, even if the objectives were laudable, one didn’t look to the government for money. At best, one asked for land and even as late as the 1960s, sought financial assistance for constructing buildings. The Asiatic Society probably started taking recourse to government funding in 1984, when it became an institution of national importance. Of the 679 ABs, half were set up between 1984 and 1989.

Joseph Nye coined the expression “soft power” a bit later, in 1990. Several ABs are supposed to provide content that can feed into India’s soft power aspirations. Perhaps that’s why, until recently, they constantly faced soft budget constraints. They obtained nearly Rs 46,500 crore in 2010-11. In 2017-18, 679 ABs obtained Rs 72,200 crore. Other than the 2016 Report of Expenditure Management Commission (Chaired by Bimal Jalan), consider Rule 229 in General Financial Rules, 2016. This is on general principles for setting up ABs and I will quote only one clause. “Peer review of autonomous organisations — Ministry shall put in place a system of external or peer review of autonomous organisations every three or five years depending on the size and nature of activity. Such a review should be the responsibility of the concerned administrative division of the ministry/department and should focus, inter alia, on; (a) the objective for which the autonomous organisation was set up and whether these objectives have been or are being achieved; (b) whether the activities should be continued at all, either because they are no longer relevant or have been completed or if there has been a substantial failure in achievement of objectives; (c) whether the nature of the activities is such that these need to be performed only by an autonomous organisation; (d) whether similar functions are also being undertaken by other organisations, be it in the central government or state governments or the private sector, and if so, whether there is scope for merging or winding up the organisations under review; (e) whether the total staff complement, particularly at the support level, is kept at a minimum, whether the enormous strides in information technology and communication facilities as also facilities for outsourcing of work on a contract basis, have been taken into account in determining staff strength; and whether scientific or technical personnel are being deployed on functions which could well be carried out by non-scientific or non-technical personnel etc. (f) whether user charges including overhead/ institutional charges/management fee in respect of sponsored projects, wherever the output or benefit of services are utilised by others, are levied at appropriate rates; and (g) the scope for maximising internal resources generation in the organisation so that the dependence upon government budgetary support is minimised”.

Since public resources are involved, and all resources have trade-offs, I think these questions are entirely justified and no, they wouldn’t have been asked between 1984 and 1989. Part of the resentment about the Ratan Watal Committee seems to be because questions are being raised about transparency and accountability of ABs. Culpability (C) has been added to AB. That’s the ABC of it.

The writer is member, Niti Aayog. Views are personal

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