The exact count of autonomous bodies in the country is not known(Hindustan Times)
The exact count of autonomous bodies in the country is not known(Hindustan Times)

Autonomous bodies are crucial to the government’s functioning. Streamline them

Define them properly, bring uniformity in their policies, facilitate senior officials’ attendance in their meetings, and seek independent audits
By Sudeshna Sen
UPDATED ON SEP 10, 2020 04:43 PM IST

The Union textile ministry recently abolished the All India Handicrafts Board, Handloom Board and the Power Loom Board in consonance with the government’s vision of minimum government, maximum governance. The ministry also changed the status of the eight Textile Research Associations to “approved bodies”, instead of the earlier “affiliated bodies”. Thereafter, the government withdrew the officials of the ministry of textiles from the governing bodies of these textile associations.

This is a bold step in achieving leaner government machinery and to introduce systematic rationalisation of government bodies. The intention to review the “other” government organisations has been evident for quite some time. In the 2016 Union Budget speech, then finance minister Arun Jaitley announced that a task force has been constituted for rationalisation of human resources in various ministries. He also contemplated a comprehensive review and rationalisation of autonomous bodies.

Ministries and departments frame policies and ensure their implementation. They are supported by a number of organisations such as autonomous bodies, statutory bodies, subordinate and attached offices, and affiliated organisations, etc. Their mode of establishment and funding, and functional autonomy differs.

Autonomous bodies (ABs) are a major stakeholder in the government’s functioning as they are engaged in diverse activities, ranging from formulating frameworks for policies, conducting research, and preserving the cultural heritage, etc. Institutes imparting technical, medical and higher education fall in this category. Most of the ABs receive money from the Central Government by way of grants-in-aid (GIA). Since 2016-17, the Union budget accounts for the GIA figures to ABs separately. As per statement no. 24, 2017-18 (revised estimates), the amount disbursed to autonomous/grantee bodies was Rs 799.55 billion, which, in 2019-20, was increased to Rs 943.84 billion.

These ABs employ a sizeable number of people as well. The apex administrative body of ABs is called governing council or governing body and is chaired by the minister or the secretary of the respective ministry. Besides, the ABs have specialised committees such as the purchase committee, works committee, finance committee, with nominated ministry officials. These ABs are audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), and the annual report is presented in the Parliament every year.

Despite a laid out administrative structure in ABs, there are a number of governance issues that needs review. On one side of the debate are proponents who believe that since these bodies are funded by taxpayer’s money, they should follow the policies of the government and be accountable the way the government departments are. Others claim that they being “autonomous” have the right to make their own financial and administrative policies. Obviously the stronger side wins, as autonomous bodies are not clearly defined. To compound matters, the exact count of ABs is not known, with estimates ranging from 400 to 650 plus. Then, ABs employ a considerable number. For example, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, an AB under the ministry of agriculture, has almost 17,000 employees.

However, unlike the government and the public sector undertakings, in which the recruitment rules are uniform and the recruitment is done by a centralised body such as the Staff Selection Committee (SSC), the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), and the Public Enterprise Selection Board, there is no such body for CAB recruitments. As a result, the mode of recruitment and recruitment rules differs for each of these bodies, sometimes even across ABs within the same ministry. Finally, there is an accountability issue. Even though the senior ministry officials are required to attend ABs’ committee meetings, they mostly don’t due to their busy schedules. They nominate junior officials who often lack the jurisdiction to take meaningful decisions during the meetings. As regards audits, some ABs are audited by CAG whereas many are done by chartered accountants.

There is, thus, an urgent need to review the governance of ABs, and devise uniform procedures. First, a legal framework to describe an AB should be drawn up, which defines the boundaries of its working, its autonomy, and the various policies that it must follow. This will simultaneously help identify the numbers. Based on a laid-out framework, each ministry will need to undertake a comprehensive review of ABs under their jurisdiction. ABs that have outlived the cause for which they were established may need to be closed or merged with a similar organisation or their memorandum altered as per the new charter.

There are others who have changed course over time. The Centre for Cultural Resources and Training, for example, works in the field of art education of teachers and is under the ministry of culture, whereas integrating art education in school-learning is the primary domain of the education department (earlier the ministry of human resource development).

Second, in order to bring about uniformity in the policies, a task force needs to be set up under a pan-Indian agency such as SSC or UPSC to streamline the recruitment rules, salary structure, allowance and perks paid to employees, and mode of recruitment.

Third, to ensure the participation of ministry officials, committee meetings of similar ABs should be held together so that the appropriate authorities could provide meaningful suggestions. It is also alleged that most of the agenda items raised by ABs are routine in nature. This should be discouraged, and only the important policy issues that need the ministry’s intervention should be taken up in such meetings.

And, finally, a one-time performance audit of ABs should be undertaken by an independent agency. CAG had done an exhaustive performance audit of autonomous scientific bodies in 2016, highlighting the gaps in their performance. Such a theme-based audit should be done for other ABs as well.

Sudeshna Sen works in the finance and accounts department, Indian Railways

The views expressed are personal

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