Sordid State of Autonomy

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Administrative reforms apart, another related area in which the government has been repeatedly found wanting is appointment of heads of autonomous Commissions and Tribunals

By Anil Anand      

Increasing dependence on bureaucracy but no structured administrative reforms to galvanize the executive, leave alone piercing the “steel frame” as the heavily loaded bureaucracy is often described, to remove red-tapism, is the scenario emerging after three and half years of NDA-II government.  Is that a reflection of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s oft-spoken belief in a more centralized system for a better control over the system?

An analysis of the government’s functioning leaves no one in doubt that administrative reforms have not been a priority area for the government. In the name of reforms only piecemeal efforts have been made that too are confusing. It would be naive to say that even such efforts are without any plan or motive.

The main administrative system of the government has remained untouched for reasons best known to Modi and his advisors. But a support system conjured up by experts in the form of statutory and constitutionally sanctioned Commissions or Tribunals has definitely been weakened if not reformed for obvious reasons of centralizing the decision making. The reasons assigned for such “reforms” is to curtail delay in decision making particularly in case of the Tribunals.

Administrative reforms apart, another related area in which the government has been repeatedly found wanting is appointment of heads of such Commissions and Tribunals. Delay with impunity has been the order and there are instances galore such bodies have remained headless for months in the process hampering their functioning. Most often the critics, on jocular note, within the government describe such delays due to an “oversight or forgetfulness” of the political masters.

It is a well known fact that the current dispensation, on ideological basis, disagrees with the Constitutional framework and elements in the ruling party and its supported outfits have repeatedly talked in terms of changing the scheme of things. Certainly the delay in appointing heads of Commissions and Tribunals or even piecemeal reformative actions cannot be justified under this light. 

At present there are 36 Central Tribunals that deal with different issues related to administrative, judicial and Constitutional issues that directly concern people. It is also well-known that the government has not been happy either with the proliferation of the Tribunals or their functioning. It was only in July this year that the Modi government took a decision to half the number of these Tribunals, from 36 to 18. This would be through mergers or abolition. The proposal for the merger of Tribunals has already been made part of the recently enacted Finance Act 2017.

The government claims the measure will speed up dispute resolution and curb wasteful expenditure.  But critics think the other way round and feel that power to appoint judges to these tribunals will undermine the authority and independence of these quasi-judicial institutions. In other words could be under greater Governmental control.

“Notification on uniform conditions of service of tribunal and other authorities through tribunal, appellate tribunal and other authorities-qualifications, experience and other conditions of service of members Rules, 2017 is also being finalized,” the sources said.

However, there is a background to Tribunal mergers and abolitions. Former Chief Justice of India TS Thakur had raised serious concern on working of these bodies. “Tribunals are not equipped and are lying empty. Today a situation has come when to retired Supreme Court judge wants to head the Tribunals. This problem is also adding to judicial backlog,” he had strongly observed.

In some ways it is felt that the government decision on Tribunals is in line with the Apex Court’s directions. The law Ministry moved a step further and wrote to all Ministries and department to provide details of Tribunals functioning under their administrative control and sought their views on the possibility of merging some of these with other Tribunals.

Justice Thakur’s observations speak volumes about working and efficacy of the Tribunal system. While he saw these bodies as supplementing the judiciary’s efforts to clear the backlog of cases, the government visualized an opportunity to reduce the Tribunal system in the name of cutting flab and expenditure. How would the newly conceived system, under Finance Act 2017 perform, is yet to be observed.

There are a number of Commissions and Authorities, Constitutional and statutory in nature, working either independently or under various Central Ministries. Majority of these have been set up with prime cause of social and public service. The most important being the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and related National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM), National Minority Commission, National Commission for Scheduled Castes, National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, National Commission for other Backdward Classes, Prasar Bharati etc.

Most appealing is the case of NDMA which deals with all aspects of disaster management across the country. It is headed by the Prime Minister but its functional head under the current scheme of things is the vice-chairman along with a set of members. The authority is without a vice-chairman ever since the incumbent a UPA government appointee resigned along with other members nearly two years back. A natural corollary was that the NDMA for all practical purposes came under Prime Minister’s control.

On top of that the government had further reduced significance of the NDMA through recent scaling down the rank of vice chairman and members from existing cabinet minister and ministers of state respectively to MoS and Secretary in the Central Government respectively.

After a long gap government ordered the appointment of three members, all experts in their respective fields in what was termed as revamping of the NDMA. It was a welcome change from earlier practice of appointing mostly politicians and retired bureaucrats without any background of disaster management. Last vice-chairman of NDMA was an active politician from undivided Andhra Pradesh while most of the members were either retired bureaucrats or police officers.

But these appointments did not come easily. The government was spurred into action after being pulled up by Delhi High Court in July this year for not filling up the vacancies both in NDMA and NIDM. The Court had strongly observed that “if the posts are unnecessary, delete them and wind up NDMA and NIDM”. The NIDM trains personnel into the acts of disaster management.

It only reflects as to how seriously the government takes the all important task of disaster management. The net result of this neglect of NDMA/NIDM is that people suffered in recent floods in Gujarat and during other calamities for want of proper disaster management measures.

Although the Scheduled Tribes are under the great focus of the BJP-led NDA government particularly in terms of a creating a vote bank but it seems the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes is not a priority area for them. The post of the Commission’s chairman was up for grabs for over seven months only to be filled in May this year that too after lot of pressure. There were no members either as all previous appointees had either completed their terms or resigned after new government came to power.

Incidentally, the post was filled only to placate a BJP leader who was dropped from the Modi cabinet during last reshuffle. The Commission is supposed to safeguard the interests of the Tribals across the country.

The all important National Commission for Women is also headless for the ever since the present chairman completed her term in September last. Despite women related issues being accorded top priority by the government, the NCW has remained neglected in all respects.

Similar situation prevailed in National Commission for Minorities. Its chairman and most of the members had retired by March 2017. The new appointments were made by the government in a piecemeal manner.