India needs a new Ministry – Ministry of Committees

A nice article by Shankar Aiyar.

He critiques this continued focus on role of committees in India’s development.

Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything–John Galbraith

It was early 2003 when experts first identified a trend which could mature into a problem later. India’s dependence on imports for Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients—and that too from China —was worrisome, both in terms of costs and assurance. It was business/imports as usual till a decade later. In 2010-11, inexplicable deaths at clinical trials, reports of growing one-source dependence, pressure of domestic producers, and the wrath of the Parliamentary Committee on Health finally got the attention of the government.

In 2012, the government appointed a committee. In May 2013, the Katoch Committee gave its recommendations. Typically, the government went into review mode. Meanwhile, share of bulk drug imports from China had nearly doubled to 40-plus per cent. In May 2014, a new government came in. In November 2014, NSA Ajit Doval underlined the “overdependence” on China. By March 2015, India’s API imports— frontline essentials like paracetamol, metformin, ranitidine, amoxicillin, ciprofloxacin, including those on WHO’s essential list—grew tenfold to over Rs 11,000 crore in ten years. In May 2015, the government informed Parliament that Katoch Committee recommendations “are being examined for formulation of a Policy for Promotion of Manufacturing of Bulk Drugs”.

It is often said, half in jest, that governments have appointed committees and studied every problem that India is confronted with. Yet problems persist and so do committees. The Modi Sarkar too—driven by compelling reasons and conflicting compulsions—created its share of committees. There hasn’t been a census of committees yet but informed denizens on Raisina Hill place the score between 60 and 75—and these are in addition to the institutionalised and inter-ministerial committees.

With some ministries, the creation of committees is an article of faith—for instance, the Ministry of Railways. On Thursday, the Bibek Debroy Committee submitted its blueprint for the revival of the Railways. This was preceded by a report of the Mittal Committee on the Financial Health of Railways. Then there is the Committee for Traffic Growth, the Sreedharan Committee on Improving and Functioning Performance of Railways, the Advisory Board of Railway Finances, the Kayakalp Council headed by Ratan Tata, the Committee for revamping the PPP cell, the Technology Mission and the group for IT Vision.

Typically, the mix is ranged between the sublime and the surreal—for instance, there is a committee on extension of retirement age for scientists from 60 to 65, this in an economy facing a workforce bulge. There is a committee on decongestion of Delhi, one “for improving the communication network during disasters”, the Water Resources Ministry has a Task Force for Interlinking Rivers and a Special Committee on Interlinking of Rivers, there is a Committee for a draft policy on Auto Fuel Vision under the petroleum ministry and a National Transport Development Policy Committee under the transport ministry. Then there is the PPP model—almost every infra ministry is designing its own version of what constitutes a public private partnership.

There is an expert committee for replacing multiple prior permissions to start a business. How about a committee to rid multiple Centre-plus-state clearances, to dismantle permission raj? The Expenditure Management Commission was constituted in August 2014. The Bimal Jalan panel submitted its interim report on government accounting, subsidies, delivery mechanisms and use of technology. There has scarcely been any debate on the content or implementation. The Shanta Kumar Committee Report on the restructuring of FCI (and reforms on procurement and PDS) was submitted in January 2015, and in June 2015 it isn’t clear if it has been rejected or accepted. The report of the committee on issues around deep sea fishing (an issue that has agitated many states and MPs) was submitted in August 2014. Do we know which parts are in and what is out?

The question that begs to be asked is if there is a central audit of committees, recommendations and implementation. Often committees are followed by review committees. The Kelkar Committee on Indigenisation of Defence Production submitted its report in 2005; a decade later, a new committee is now reviewing the functioning of DRDO.

This was shown really well in Jaspal Bhatti’s  epic TV comedy show Flopshow. He was a CEO in the show and after a meeting a TV reported asked of the outcome. Bhatti said today was a great day. We have decided on the next meeting. Same is the case with committees in India as well. One just leads to another. The media keeps branding the new committee as a new era and so on.

This blog had said the same on financial sector committees as well (here and here).

Next step could be a Ministry of Committees..

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