The government has reduced governance reforms to setting-up of empowered group of ministers (EGoMs) on each and every issue. The EGoM-mania is contrary to the recommendations of Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC).
You name an issue that has been either politicised or manipulated by corporate lobbyists, and you have an EGoM in the works. Be it tendering competition for the third generation (3G) of cellular telephone licences, be it revising basmati export price, be it managing food import and export in a drought year, be it finalising legal stance on corporate gas disputes and approving special economic zones, EGoM is the solution-provider.
But when it comes to crisis management such as the ongoing aviation turmoil aggravated by the current Jet’s pilot strike, the government falters in constituting an EGoM. Even as hapless passengers are being fleeced by rival airlines or are left grounded at the airports, the government remains undecided on invoking Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA). The UPA political leadership has otherwise transformed EGoMs into a magic wand for centralising powers on weighty issues that involve tonnes of money. It is also a ploy to marginalise certain Cabinet ministers, who are perceived as favouring one business house or the other.
Instead of misusing the institution of EGoMs, UPA should respect and even restore the delegation of power to institutional mechanism at the level of civil servants. The institutional framework includes Telecom Commission, which comprises whole-time as well as part-time secretary-rank members, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), disbanded committee of secretaries called Gas Linkage Committee (GLC) and the generic concept of sector-specific empowered committees of secretaries.
This EGoM mantra has marginalised both the institutions of inter-ministerial committees of secretaries and of independent regulators. The concentration of powers in the hands of political leadership has aggravated the credibility crisis in what the government promises and what it does.
It is small wonder for aam aadmi to read screaming headlines such as “Deora seeks new EGoM on gas” in dailies. The Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas Murli Deora wants a new EGoM to be constituted for allocating gas from the proposed second lot of 40 million standard cubic metres per day of gas (MSCMPD) that Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) is keen to produce.
There is already an EGoM on articulation and coordination of legal stand of different ministries on gas dispute between Ambani brothers and gas dispute between NTPC and RIL.
The tenure of previous EGoM on KG basin gas pricing and allocation has obviously lapsed. The business of gas allocations was handled in seamless and non-discriminatory fashion by Petroleum Secretary-chaired GLC. The UPA had disbanded GLC in 2005 under the garb of economic reforms. It obviously does not want to delegate powers to such panel, as gas allocations give politicians an opportunity to indulge in licence, permit, quota raj.
The gas allocations should have been actually done at least two years earlier, as it takes time to set up new or expand existing gas-based industries, notably fertilizer and power plants. Several proposed projects have been waiting for gas allocations for years. UPA has thus delayed the opportunity to increase industrial production and create new jobs.
Even if Cabinet Secretariat constitutes a new EGoM on gas or revives GLC and the latter takes decisions at lightning pace, KG basin gas would remain untapped until the projects come on stream.
The delay in decision-making process has also cost the exchequer and the consumer heavily in the case of 3G cellular telephone services. Though TRAI recommended the regulatory framework for 3G three years back, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) is yet to organise a global tendering competition for 3G services, which would bring broadband internet facility on the mobile handsets.
The 3G mess last month prompted former TRAI chairman Nripendra Misra to bemoan as: “The real problem with 3G is G3-the three government bodies responsible: DoT, TRAI and the Finance Ministry. Each has different goals; and so, naturally, wires have got crossed.”
According to a telecom industry source, all such issues earlier used to get resolved at Telecom Commission (TC) that comprises four whole-time secretary-level members and secretaries of a few ministries who serve as part-time members.
TC’s recommendations used to be approved by the Minister for Telecommunications or finally by Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs, as the case might be.
EGoM on 3G is headed by UPA’s seasoned and trusted trouble-shooter, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee. It has now almost finalised the broad bidding and regulatory framework for 3G services.
Shri Mukherjee also heads EGoM on food security and drought management. He earlier headed EGoM on KG basin pricing and gas allocations.
It is here pertinent to recall ARC’s observations on EGoMs. In its 13th report titled Organisational Structure of Government of India submitted in April 2009, ARC noted that the government has constituted several GoMs in addition to the usual cabinet committees on political affairs, prices, security, natural calamities, etc.
ARC said: “Some of these GoMs have been empowered to take decisions on behalf of the Cabinet whereas the others make recommendations to the Cabinet. The Commission understands that the constitution of a large number of GoMs has resulted in many GoMs not being able to meet regularly to complete their work thus leading to significant delays on many major issues.”
It continued: “The Commission feels that more selective use of the institution of Group of Ministers would perhaps lead to more effective coordination particularly if they are empowered to arrive at a decision on behalf of the Cabinet with time limits that are prescribed for completing the work entrusted to them.”
According to a retired official, UPA can reduce the burden on political leadership by delegating its powers to the institution of empowered committee of secretaries that are constituted for specific sectors or issues.
UPA, for instance, last month decided to assign an empowered committee of secretaries the task of approving proposals for acquiring overseas coal mines to be submitted by International Coal Ventures Limited, a joint venture of five public sector undertakings. The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA), however, also stipulated that these approvals would require its final clearance. It is thus clear that political leadership does not want to delegate powers to the institution of empowered committee of secretaries in true spirit.
This is in sharp contrast to enlightened approach followed by the erstwhile BJP government in Rajasthan. On October 6, 2006, the state government, for instance, delegated all its powers to an empowered committee of officials set to oversee implementation of Asian Development Bank-funded Urban Infrastructure Development Project Phase-II.
Reverting to ARC, the Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh had reportedly stated in July that the government would set up an EGoM to go into the ARC recommendations spread over 15 volumes.
One does not know whether the government has constituted such an EGoM. The information on number and functions of EGoMs is hard to come by on internet. Neither the Cabinet Secretariat nor the Prime Minister’s Office has disclosed any information about EGoMs on its respective website.
UPA should perhaps mull over ARC’s observation that “In a democracy, the ultimate executive authority for all purposes lies with the political executive which is accountable to the people through Parliament. However, like in any large organisation, government also has to function through a hierarchy of functionaries to carry out defined tasks at different levels and in different locations. This necessitates on practical considerations the delegation of authority and responsibility to the civil servants at different levels in government. Such delegation is in line with the principles of subsidiarity, which helps take government closer to the people.”