Ashoak Upadhyay

Now, it’s committee-panel raj

ASHOAK UPADHYAY | Updated on March 12, 2018

More power to the panelists

The Prime Minister’s fondness for committees is not showing results. Besides, they short-circuit more democratic methods.

Late last week came the most electrifying news in some time — news to warm the cockles of those corporate hearts that have despaired of policymakers dithering over projects, that could mean the difference between 5.5 per cent and 6.2 per cent GDP growth.

In times such as these, when the economy seems to many of its sterling stalwarts to have got stuck in a tunnel, the least one should expect of policymakers is a vision to get us out into the sunshine.

The Prime Minister’s Project Monitoring Group is set to do just that. At the insistence of Manmohan Singh -- within days, in fact, of the Prime Minister calling for a speedy resolution to stalled projects that are piling up on various ministerial desks -- the PMG set about clearing what can be only described as a phenomenal number of stalled projects in the core sector: 11 power proposals worth Rs 52,000 crore.

Besides, two meetings of sub-groups have been held under the PMG umbrella since the Prime Minister’s public disapproval of tardiness; nine such sub-groups have been set up with representation from various key ministries — environment, coal, defence, railways, petroleum and natural gas, mines and heavy industries to locate problem areas and presumably take action. Policy execution has a spring in its step.

Why stalled?

In the case of the eleven projects now ready to see the light of day, deliberations by the sub-group concerned revealed environmental clearances to be a deterrent; in most of the cases, however, coal was in short supply. An official was reported in this paper confidently asserting the PMG had identified the problems “in each of the projects and hopes to sort these out soon.”

One cannot help feeling a sense of unreality here. Are we to understand that the Prime Minister’s magisterial authority had to be invoked to get policymakers to draw up a laundry list of stalled projects, identify the reasons for the delays, only to be told that the problems identified lie in the interstices and working of the government departments themselves?

Projects have to be cleared by various ministries presumably acting to a plan and targets in cohesion with one another: sixty years should provide some lessons on how to work consensually without the need for dressing downs to clean up one’s room, as it were.

One would also presume that whatever is holding up the process of clearances -- laziness, forgetfulness and other forms of common human shortcomings such as interdepartmental wrangling or partisan politics of one kind or another -- would have been sorted out through some form of clearing house mechanism without avuncular interventions by the PM?

Who points the finger?

The PMG is that mechanism some might say. On paper yes; but it has no underlying processes guiding its trajectory of operations.

What motivates the PMG’s alacrity of movement is really the fiat from the PMO; that order is derived from the need to be seen to work. But the PMG’s work is a bouquet of gestures for they do not signify presumptive correction. For decades governments have tiptoed around questions of accountability; someone has to pay the price for the tardy delivery of a public good.

That price can be extracted only if the politico-administrative system has a structure of delivery mechanisms in place. Not just the ones that measure time and cost overruns, a practice that has allowed policymakers to turn a vice into virtue touted as part of commitment to governance, but those that can point the finger and hold the culpable accountable for such lapses. That process of creating and then adding up the building blocks of representative democracy requires the ability to introspect, to think deep enough for sustainable governance, for a self-perpetuating apparatus to confront and tackle those problems that stall projects.

Much like the Constitution that helps create institutions to enable an effective judiciary, so too governments need mechanisms that can help their departments keep their side of the bargain in the game of democracy.

So far the Parliamentary audit bodies do the work but if governments squirm it’s only because they haven’t rustled up an internal audit system answerable to the people.

Corporatist politics

The UPA gives us the PMG, a committee of dedicated doers, the quick-fix doctors cutting their way through the thickets of enervating red tape.

It is a tragedy of democracy that its weaknesses elicit from the sections of the public and media “amplifiers” the urge to centralise, to gather power unto the corporate board or CEO, be it the National Investment Board, the PMG, the PMO.

Democracy’s flaws should ideally generate the call for its strengthening through greater decentralisation and conversations. But the temptation to assign power to a “board” representing and acting on behalf of a shareholder universe asking for nothing more than an exponential jump in its equity holdings is tempting.

In this post-modernist world of utility and profit maximisation, the corporate world provides a role model for politics where democratic governments are victims of their own caprices and the fickleness of the “masses.”

The principal element of this discourse is, of course, the goal of growth (profits=GDP) through efficiencies in decision making and execution. If firms can get their act together, locate and penetrate new markets under the leadership of a Darwinian selection of the fittest, why not governments?

All over the world, the fundamental tenets of democracy are being slyly skipped over or simply trampled. In America, it was historically done in the name of democracy itself. In India the urge to gather power within a small group gains legitimacy set against the concerns of growth and power for the people, electricity that is. If you want power, give up power.

The PMG could become another version of the red tape that binds government into inaction and futile activity; another committee, more meetings, arguments and peer-level file-movements. But it expresses a mind-shift to the idea that all growth needs are a few good men.

Published on July 09, 2013

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