A third of the government-funded autonomous bodies may either be wound up or merged with others while several others may have to stand on their own feet, as the government is embarking on an overhaul of these bodies to cut wasteful spending. A committee headed by former finance secretary Ratan P Watal has found much scope for reducing these bodies’ flab, even as it is undertaking an administrative ministry-wise cost-benefit analysis of them. There are as many as 679 such bodies directly funded by the Centre now — up from less than 50 in 1950s — as successive governments have created new organisations aimed at promoting research, higher education, welfare and regulatory wherewithal. While a large number of these are contributing in good measure to nation-building, several have outlived their utility and become a drain on the exchequer.
According to the 2017-18 Budget, outlays to these bodies is a staggering Rs 72,200 crore, up from Rs 63,975 crore last year. Over 40% of the funds allocated to these bodies are used for payment of salaries. Official sources said the Watal panel, which includes representatives from the Prime Minister’s Office, finance ministry, law ministry and the Comptroller and Auditor General, among others, has submitted an interim report to the prime minister recently. One of its recommendations, the sources said, is to merge 40 of the 114 institutions belonging to five ministries including the culture, sports, health and higher education with other similar-profile institutions. In the second round, the panel is currently scrutinising autonomous bodies attached to the departments of science & technology, scientific and industrial research, women and child development, biotechnology and school education. Once created, the entities keep on surviving, many of them not serving any meaningful purpose. Some bodies created during Asian Games in India in 1982, for instance, was shut down only recently.
The sources said some of these institutions such as those providing consultancy could be converted into companies. The staff of the entities that will be merged with others or closed,would be rehabilitated. The autonomous bodies funded by the Centre include premier educational/research institutions like the Indian Institute of Technology, Indian Institutes of Management, Indian Institute of Science, Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Indian Council of Historical Research, etc, regulators like the University Grants Commission, AICTE, MCI and ICMR, think tanks like National Institute of Public Finance and Policy and Institute of Economic Growth, bodies in the infrastructure space like PNGRB and numerous other entities including the likes of National School of Drama, Lalit Kala Akademi, etc. Though the Centre spends huge sums on these entities, it has little centralised data on what they are doing, their current relevance and whether similar jobs are done by multiple institutions.
The expenditure management commission (EMC) headed by former Reserve Bank of India governor Bimal Jalan had highlighted the need for periodic reviews of the working of the autonomous bodies under various ministries with a view to examining the scope for their “mergers, disengagement, closure or corporatisation”. The EMC had also suggested reviewing grants made to autonomous bodies and linking it to their performance. Acting on the recommendations of the EMC, the department of expenditure has already asked the autonomous bodies including ICAR to levy adequate user charges to reduce burden on the exchequer.