The Y. H. Malegam committee constituted to look into the microfinance sector is the latest one to stir up the pot. India’s love affair with committees and commissions is as old as the Republic and has not lost intensity with time. The first committee to be announced in independent India was the Drafting Committee of the Indian Constitution led by B.R. Ambedkar and including such stalwarts as Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, K.M. Munshi and Sayyad Sadulla. That committee delivered its mandate on time and the Republic adopted its first constitution in 1950. The record of committees delivering on their “terms of reference” and on time has been patchy since then.
We have committees that stand and committees that sit. This leads to such priceless headlines as the “The Standing Committee on Labour at its first sitting…” Paradoxically, a standing committee is permanent while a sitting committee may well have an expiry date. Wikipedia defines a committee or commission as “a type of small deliberative assembly intended to remain subordinate to another, larger deliberative assembly. The word committee implies a relatively small group of people who can move with speed and agility and are merely carrying out the terms of reference set by some higher authority. Many aspects of this semantic have been lost in India. The Public Accounts Committee of Parliament that is constituted each year to “examine the appropriation of sums by the government of India” usually has 22 members. The parliamentary committee on estimates allows 30 members. A little known fact is that almost every ministry at the Centre has a departmentally related standing committee which can have up to 45 members drawn from the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha.
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Commissions are usually more important and less periodic. Many permanent commissions have been established by an Act of Parliament. Some of these commissions have been active and effective such as the Election Commission of India and the Central Vigilance Commission. Others have been ineffective or dormant (Competition Commission of India, Knowledge Commission). Still others have become formidable bureaucracies such as the University Grants Commission and the Planning Commission. So formidable indeed that the Planning Commission has a committee headed by Arun Maira to recommend its transformation into a systems reforms commission.
Commissions often have greater authority and may even have prosecuting ability if related to the examination of wrongdoing. Periodic high-power commissions such as the 13th Finance Commission and the Second Administrative Reforms Commission that concluded recently have done their job well and on time. Many have not even heard of the Commission on Centre-State Relations lead by justice?M.M. Punchhi?that submitted its report last year. In an era of important centre-state discussions around goods and services tax, interstate sharing of waters and other resources and deployment of armed services, this commission has come and gone with stealth.
What is it about the Indian system today that requires the creation of so many commissions and committees? At the drop of a hat, we constitute a commission or committee to look into everything from toddy tappers’ pensions to bifurcation of states. Hot off the press is a multidisciplinary committee to look into the “quantum of illicit funds generated by Indian citizens”. The positive view is that committees are a gradual way of building a consensus in the cacophonic, plural democracy that is India. Extremely gradual to be sure, but still a way of letting the information and ideas percolate through the system. Believers in this notion would say that the “Mumbai as an international financial centre” committee report was never meant to achieve anything right away. The report would work its magic by embedding itself in our collective brains so that we would all be working subliminally over the next 20 years towards making Mumbai such a place. Bosh! Say the detractors. Committees made up of dozens of doddering old men are always a day late and a dollar short. Sheer waste of time and resources and a fig leaf for the ineffectiveness of institutions that should be doing their jobs in the first place. This group would point to the inability or unwillingness of the RBI to do its job, necessitating the creation of the Malegam Committee.
Since “committeitis” is so deeply entrenched in our system, I recommend that we work our way out of it gradually lest withdrawal problems become overwhelming. Here are some ideas. Resolve that no new commission gets created until one is abolished. For example, if you want to create the illicit (money) commission get rid of the Knowledge Commission. The second is to enact legislation to cap any Central government committee size to a maximum of seven members. Not only will this help balance the budget deficit it will free up a large number of government dwellings in Lutyen’s Delhi. Third, all non-permanent committees/commissions die four years from their creation. No extensions.
P.S.: Robert Copeland said “to get something done, a committee should consist of no more than three people, two of whom are absent”.
Narayan Ramachandran is an investor and entrepreneur based in Bangalore. He writes on the interaction between society, government and markets. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org