The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Committees are a shield for displacing responsibility

The one government announcement that is beginning to routinely elicit a big yawn is the appointment of yet another committee or commission. Just a random perusal of the present government's announcements will reveal the creation of new committees in everything from infrastructure to investment policy. We are now going to have yet another committee on public sector restructuring. The ministry of human resources seems to create more committees than there are textbooks to rewrite. By some counts we now have the 19th government committee to propose administrative reforms.

The number of commissions of inquiry, or commissions to make proposals for various reforms, still in existence is so long that we have probably lost count of them. The state has become what V.S. Pritchett once described as a 'craving rookery of committees and subcommittees'. It is admittedly a little na've to belittle these things: we need committees for co-ordination, for revealing new truths, for mobilizing expert opinions, for increasing sociability amongst constituents that might otherwise not talk to each other. There seems to be something democratic about committees: relevant persons coming together to engage one another in public reason. And after all, what could be a better expression of a commitment than appointing a committee.

Committees come in all shapes and sizes. We have committees of politicians and cabinet members now discussing heady matters like private sector reservations, socially eclectic committees discussing education for minorities, and of course, commissions headed by judges singlehandedly and heroically revealing new truths. The sizes of committees are bewildering: from one man shows to mega-jamborees. I recently had the privilege of being appointed to an inconsequential government committee, whose name it would be ungrateful and imprudent to reveal. This committee had over twenty members, an ideal number, I take it, for producing clarity in deliberations.

Like Indian group life in general, committees involute: they quickly mutate into a host of subcommittees. But then I prejudge: if the camel is indeed a horse deigned by a committee we may indeed be better of with committees. Committees may be the one public-sector enterprise that is only destined to grow and serve us well.

While not belittling the institution, I suspect most citizens feel about committees what the humorist, Fred Allen, felt about them: 'Committee ' a group of men who individually can do nothing but as a group decide that nothing can be done.' Etymology apart, committees have come to signify the opposite of commitment. Committees seldom have executive power; they take too long in their deliberations and often simply remind us of what we already know. They either legitimize what is already legitimate, or kill an idea that had no prayer anyway. In retrospect, there was something to creating a 'ministry of disinvestment' instead of a 'commission on disinvestment'. At least, it had the imprimatur of executive power behind it: we could judge it on its actions.

Committees are seldom about action. They inhabit this in-between zone between the present and the future. If they are too visionary, no one will bother about their recommendations; if they are too realistic, they reproduce conventional wisdom and so you wonder what the point is anyway. The best reports languish in obscurity; a kind of reminder of the gap between ought and is. G.K. Chesterton once complained that he had searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues to committees. Most committees remain obscure; the names of a few lucky ones cast a ghostly shadow and get to define the terms of debate.

Committees have given rise to a new species, at least in that committee-land called Delhi: homo commiticus. I once met a distinguished civil servant who was proud of the fact that he was serving concurrently on more than a dozen government committees. He candidly attributed this honour, not to his renaissance talents for mastering a diverse array of subjects quickly. He was rather what they called 'a perfect committee man': studious without being visionary, prone to discussion without generating conflict, and with an extraordinary ability to further the cause of the chairman of whichever committee he was on. In short, the perfect person to produce the kinds of results most committees do.

Committees make good politics. By incorporating so many people on committees you neutralize opposition. So if most of the significant left academics are on Arjun Singh's committee, who will be left to speak out against his views on astrology and the curriculum' If Sonia Gandhi has a committee that includes crusaders for political reform, fighters for freedom of information and every species of civil society actor you can imagine, who could fault her intentions. Committees are a shield for displacing responsibility. After all who believes in collective guilt'

Yet committees seldom produce bold results: most of their handiwork represents compromise rather than adherence to principles. Now we have a new species of committees: committees to oversee the implementation of programmes. But a committee to oversee implementation is something of an oxymoron. How can a group of people with no executive powers be held responsible for implementation'

The penchant for committees is making the structure of government more complicated and obscure. Sometimes you begin to wonder what ministries are doing if so many extra committees are needed to further what should be their routine work, and you wonder what the legislature is for if committees are the only sites of deliberation we trust. And what do we make of our formal institutions of representation if committees are the only way to appear to be representative' Often we get that close cousin of a committee, a commission. These are generally more self-important, more independent, but ultimately another source of talk rather than action. Take three powerful commissions: The Human Rights Commission, the Minorities Commission and the Scheduled Castes Commission. They have occasionally fluttered their wings, but have seldom flown. Sometimes they work at cross purposes, but their relationship to the working of government as a whole remains obscure.

The prime minister in his Independence Day address set a new and healthy precedent by refusing to make empty promises. But if the substitute for unfulfilled promises will be more committees to look into things, I am not sure what we should prefer. And the voters should feel cheated in most instances where a new committee is appointed. Didn't we elect these folks because they claimed to know how to further our interests' What's the point of electing them if they need a committee to find out what the right thing to do is'

It is often said of committees that they keep the minutes only to waste the hours. If that venial sin was the price of oiling the wheels of government, little harm would be done. And what is a little extra TA/ DA in the cause of public deliberation' Occasionally a gem of a report may emerge to make it all worthwhile. More often than not, just the production of a report can itself be the beginning of the slippery slope to something consequential. Remember the Mandal Commission, that eleven years after its constitution changed the politics of the nation'

There is now a committee on reservations in the private sector. Given the high visibility of its members it is more than likely that the committee will have to produce something just because it is there. And we await the consequences with baited breath. But then all that has been said about committees is probably mere speculation. Who has calculated the true opportunity cost of these contraptions, based on evidence and open hearings' We really need a committee to look into the performance of committees, and since there is always the chance that a single committee will be biased, we will definitely need another committee to review its findings.

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