New Delhi: The chiefs of Steel Authority of India Ltd (SAIL) and NTPC Ltd on Thursday launched a scathing public attack on the way the government runs public sector undertakings (PSUs), accusing it of interference and calling for separating ownership from management.

C.S. Verma, chairman of SAIL, and Arup Roy Choudhury, chairman and managing director of NTPC, made their comments at a conference in New Delhi at a time when the government wants state-owned firms, which employ 1.39 million people, to work towards reviving economic growth. They vented their frustration at a meeting of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), a lobby group.

“Government-owned companies, that have for long been at the receiving end, decided to bare it all at the CII annual meeting 2014, expressing strong reservations on the nature of government ownership, management control by parent ministries and lack of autonomy in appointment of boards and CEOs," CII said in a statement.

In his remarks, Verma, who heads India’s second largest steel maker, said, “There are 229 PSUs in the country. We don’t need them in the present form. More than 80% profit is contributed by the top 10 PSUs. The business of the government is not to do business. There is a lot of interference happening."

“In the present shape, there are many ills in running a PSU. There has to be separation of ownership and management. There should also be outside experts for the selection to a PSU," added Verma.

SAIL’s performance is important for India’s economy to return to a high-growth trajectory. The company plans to invest around $26 billion to double its manufacturing capacity to 50 million tonnes by 2025.

“Steel is a deregulated item. What role does the steel ministry have to run SAIL? Government directors talk ownership sans responsibility," Verma added.

Companies controlled by the central government have invested a total of 7.3 trillion as on 31 March 2012 since their inception, according to the department of public enterprises. This doesn’t include seven state-run insurance firms.

Arguing similarly, Roy Choudhury said, “There is no clarity about who owns these companies...The problem is not about who is the owner, but whether the owner is willing to take the responsibility. As a CEO (chief executive officer) I don’t have a problem in having an owner, but I should know him." The utility has the capacity to generate 42,964 megawatts (MW) of electricity, with a target of becoming a 128,000MW power producer by the year 2032.

“If you are a non-performing CEO, you are the best CEO," added Roy Choudhury in sarcasm.

A panel headed by S.K. Roongta, former head of SAIL, on Reforms in Central Public Sector Enterprises had highlighted the issue of so-called over-governance and proposed a fixed tenure for chief executives of companies run by the central government in order to improve accountability, transparency and efficiency. “Compliance to summons from various quarters comes at a heavy cost of time and money. Over-governance, in turn, promotes conservative, cautious and risk averse organizational culture, with procedures being paramount and outcomes becoming secondary," the Roongta panel wrote in its recommendations.

The panel’s report strongly recommended that the tenure of the chairman and managing director, as well as directors, in PSUs should be a minimum of three years, irrespective of their age at the time of the first appointment.

Arun Maira, urban affairs member in the Planning Commission, who was moderating the discussion, also criticized the government for its interference.