Glossary & annotations
States -- There were 26 States in India at the time of this story (now there are 29, due to subsequent partitions).
Lok Sabha -- Lower House of Indian Parliament (in India's prime language Hindi, Lok = people ; Sabha = assembly).
Madras -- South Indian metropolis, capital of Tamil Nadu State (and my own home city!).
11 December 1996
11 December 1996
India of C-A-G
Two years have passed since this column was started, and more than sixty articles have appeared so far. Some of them described the functions of the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India, as well as the nature, scope, attitudes, environment and quality of Government audit in India, but most of the articles were devoted to disseminating the contents of the CAG's Audit Reports.
Regular readers of this column must be wondering where exactly the Audit Reports are leading. Are they having any perceptible and positive impact on the Central and State Governments?
Are the institutions responsible for following up the CAG's reports under the Constitution -- the Public Accounts Committees (PACs) and the Committees on Public Undertakings (COPUs) of Parliament and the State Legislatures -- doing a useful job? This is a problem with which the CAG has been wrestling for 50 years, and a proper solution still seems to be as elusive as ever!
And that reminds me forcefully of the Shakdher Committee, which had gone into the related issues on the States side a few years ago. I happened to be the Member-Secretary of that panel, which had been appointed by the CAG. But before I explain the background of the Commitee, I must recall the memory of a certain young exponent of the ancient Chinese martial art Kung-Fu.
Crusade against tyranny
In the Chinese film 'The 36th Chamber of Shaolin', which ran to full houses in several Indian cities 15 years ago, the hero is a handsome young boy who grows up in the terrible and repressive regime of a merciless tyrant in ancient China, and resolves to fight the oppressor effectively. Now there is a sequestered monastery called Shaolin, where the finest masters of Kung-Fu live and teach. But they teach solely for the sake of keeping the art alive, and an inflexible tradition does not allow any master or disciple ever to leave the premises and practice it outside.
The boy decides to learn Kung-Fu, and smuggles himself into Shaolin by hiding in a cart carrying provisions. He makes a good impression on the elders, who take him in as a monk and accept him as an apprentice.
The monastery has 35 chambers specializing in different aspects of the martial techniques, ranging from the physical to the spititual. Our hero proves to be the best disciple ever to have been taught there, and very soon masters all aspects of the art comprehensively.
In a decisive final test, held in front of all the elders, he bows humbly before his chief master asking for forgiveness, and proceeds to defeat him in a spectacular demonstration of skill and power.
So impressed is the doyen of Shaolin that he not only nominates the boy on the spot as a teacher, but directs him to choose any one of the 35 chambers, which would be his for the asking.
However, our hero humbly asks for the 36th chamber. "But it does not exist, my son!" says the puzzled doyen. "Yes, master, it does -- outside Shaolin," replies the boy. He proceeds to reveal the true reason for learning Kung-Fu, and pleads for a chance to fight the tyrant and end the oppression.
The supreme monk is so impressed by the boy's earnestness that he breaks the rigid tradition by ostensibly expelling him from Shaolin but implicitly permitting him to leave the monastery, practice the martial art outside and accomplish his mission -- which, of course, he does in a triumphant climax.
Tyranny of indifference
Well, by now the reader must be wondering what all this has got to do with the CAG of India and his Audit reports. Let me explain!
I spent the final years of my civil service in the CAG's Headquarters office in the Capital, and during that period I was supervising the work relating to the production and editing of the CAG's Audit Reports concerning all the States.
One of the very old and vexing issues we were grappling with was the abysmally poor response of all the State Governments to the CAG's reports, and the extremely lethargic manner in which the Public Accounts Committees (PACs) and the Committees on Public Undertakings (COPUs) in all State Legislatures were functioning.
The contents of the Audit Reports were voluminous, and the PACs and COPUs could hope to keep their work current only if they could adopt a very selective approach in holding detailed discussions, as was done at the Center. But in the States they were adopting a very rigid approach, trying to discuss all the material, so that several past years' work had accumulated into a formidable backlog, becoming a heavy and permanent burden.
So much so that in 1992 many of the State PACs and COPUs were still trying to discuss the contents of the CAG's reports relating to 1984-85 and 1983-84. In West Bengal they were still debating the issues raised in the 1981-82 report! And the current year's reports invariably got placed at the end of the long pipeline, to await disposal several years later.
Mr. C.G. Somiah, who was the CAG then, felt extremely concerned about this state of affairs, and wanted to do something to improve the situation. So all through 1991-92 the Accountant-Generals in all the States went far out of their way, meeting the Governors, Chief Secretaries, Finance and other Secretaries, Chairmen of PACs and COPUs, and Speakers of the State Legislatures, and pleading with them to improve the situation. But all those extraordinary efforts were leading nowhere, and the fossilized system was just not responding to any stimulus we could think of.
By mid-1992, I had reached the conclusion that nothing more could be done by the Accountant-Generals without sacrificing their own dignity, which would be counter-productive anyway. So I suggested to the CAG that we should call off the special drive and let things take their own course.
I recorded my views in a note, strongly stressing the fact that it was not really the job of the Audit Department to activate the Governments, PACs and COPUs, and that only some forceful extra-mural influence -- like the conferences of PAC and COPU Chairmen annd those of the Speakers -- might have any positive impact on this totally negative environment.
Enter 'The Author'
It was in this extremely distressing context that Mr. Somiah thought of appointing a committee, to be headed by an exceptionally influential person, to take stock of the whole muddle and try to alter the environment.
"Ramakrishna, you wanted someone to take some extra-mural initiative," he told me. "So let us organize it now. I shall nominate you as Member-Secretary of a Committee. Let us find a proper Chairman. You can retain the office facilities here, but you can go out and do something!"
And that is how, after serving the Indian Audit and Accounts Department for 35 years, I had a chance to go out and try to influence the outside environment in the 36th year, in what I like to think of as the 36th Chamber of Audit.
Anyway, I did find the father figure in the Committee's Chairman, who was none other than Mr. S.L. Shakdher, the former Secretary-General of the Lok Sabha and former Chief Election Commissioner.
If you are now in a mind to ask whether the Committee altered the environment and killed the tyranny of indifference and lethargy, the honest answer must be no, it certainly did not.
But I do think its efforts were worthwhile in a way, for in a conference in Madras in 1993 the Speakers of Parliament and all State Legislatures unanimously endorsed the Committee's recommendations 'in toto'. It was Mr. Shakdher's towering image as a Parliamentarian (and author of the standard reference book on Indian Parliamentary practices) which brought about such a firm resolution. . . ..
(This scenario and the sequel were amplified
in several essays which followed)