There is a Committee for Review of Autonomous Bodies (AB-s), chaired by Ratan Watal. The Committee’s Interim Report is not in public domain, not yet. 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 Mark 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 review is contemplated, there must be something beyond notions of self-governance and self-rule. 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. (1) An AB is set up by government for a specific purpose. (2) It is independent in day-to-day functioning, but government has some control over the AB. (3) Government funds the AB in some form, revenue expenditure, capital expenditure, or both. In 2012, there was a CAG Compliance Report for AB-s, Report No. 33 of 2011-12. “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 AB-s, and Ratan Watal Committee is also about these. There are other AB-s at state government level. In 1955, there were 35 AB-s. Today, there are at least 679 AB-s. I used the expression “at least” deliberately—679 is the number for which information exists. The actual number may be marginally more. The oldest is clearly Asiatic Society, established in 1784. In the days of William Jones, even if objectives were laudable, one didn’t look towards government for money. At best, one asked for land and even as late as 1960s, financial assistance for constructing buildings. For Asiatic Society, constant recourse to government funds probably started in 1984, when it became an Institution of National Importance. Out of 679 AB-s, half were set up between 1984 and 1989.
Joseph Nye coined the expression “soft power” a bit later, in 1990. Several AB-s are supposed to provide content that can feed into India’s soft power aspirations. Perhaps that’s the reason why, until recently, they constantly faced soft budget constraints. The Rs 46,500 crore the CAG report talked about was in 2010-11. In 2017-18, 679 AB-s 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 AB-s and I will quote only one clause. “Peer review of autonomous organizations—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. Culpability (C) has been added to AB. That’s the ABC of it.