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Saturday, Dec 21, 2002

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Can committee reports jolt you off the bed?

D. Murali

THE answer is `no'. If you are already awake, you should remember that employees who outlive their utility get kicked upstairs. Board members who are too senior to be dropped get the chairman post. News items that are not too exciting get buried in the inside pages, usually to the left. Dull programmes get beamed in off-prime time.

While hot-sellers hog the front shelves in bookshops, the less sought-after ones lie on the top racks. VIPs get preferred parking slots when the ordinary mortals have to trot from a far-off parking ground. Suggestions that are apparently useful but too radical may go to a panel to get vetted. And matters that are too hot to be debated get shoved to a committee to look into. So, you can afford to pull up the sheets and go to sleep.

Historically, one of the key lessons of survival is to handle disposals and burials. Nature has its ways of degrading almost everything except the things that environmentalists deride. And we have devised umpteen ways of getting rid of what can decompose.

Urns and balms have helped, as also the helpful waters that the jailers in The Count of Monte Cristo used to push the sewed-up body bags into. All-consuming fire is a common end to many problems, be they documents in a sub-registrar's office, or incriminating stuff on some premises. Lockers and vaults could hide the dirtiest of secrets, and key facts may die with an important witness who is appropriately `taken care of'.

Electronically, we have a waiting recycle bin, and deeper within it, an `empty the bin' option to throw things out through the black hole.

All this would not make sense from an ideal economics angle, for a perfect market structure has large numbers of both buyers and sellers, all of them small, and perfect competition prevails with homogeneous products, free entry and exit, and complete information. But you need to keep resources scarce if economists have to be gainfully employed. One critical resource could be facts hiding in the past.

Human memory relies on an efficient system of unconscious garbage-cleaning to remain sane. And, strangely, public memory is not the sum total of everybody's memory but is one of those most ephemeral phenomena in the world, much like the shapes that get conjured up by passing clouds.

One can attribute our preoccupation with reports of task forces, documents prepared by experts, panel outputs, commission findings, research papers and enquiry revelations simply to signs of evolved taste in burying things that were once too hot. For instance, when a much-awaited report arrives at last, there is the usual curiosity to know what it says. But, as in the case of the JPC probe into last year's stock scam and the UTI fiasco, it may well be an anti-climax to know that our then Finance Minister was actually a clean man. And that the real culprit's name started with `K' and ended with `h'. His predecessor's was an `H' name that finished with `a'. Well, he could be laughing in his grave.

As in any good news story, there are enough leads in the JPC report too, that the nexus between KP, banks and corporates be further investigated by SEBI or DCA. New terms are explained, as for instance the definition of stock market scam as basically the manipulation of the capital market to benefit market operators, brokers, corporate entities and their promoters and management.

The bad news is that SEBI was sleeping, instead of bringing out irregularities and defusing them before the scam blew up; and there is no accountability in our financial system.

A silver lining, however, is that the number of banks involved in committing irregularities, in comparison to the total number of banks in the country, was small. Even among the erring banks, it is the private players who are to be on the watch list.

For those who expected that the report would fix the responsibility on the then FM, Mr Yashwant Sinha, the `Finance Ministry's lack of pro-active role' as the culprit could be quite impersonal to be considered a big sin. But, then, a report is not supposed to make everybody happy.

A fat folder is a sign of work done, and the `number of pages' is a vital statistic for any group effort.

On a sombre note, as with burials, which have set yardsticks to measure their effectiveness — such as, how many attended the service and who said what, or the decibel level reached in terms of crackers, flowers strewn, or the series of obits in the media — there are many ways to gauge committee efforts.

Nobody expects the buried to walk again, nor any new truth to emerge from some joint effort.


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