Wednesday, February 1, 2023

The Nation’s Conscience-keeper

The Indian PAC has built a formidable reputation as a powerful parliamentary watchdog, not only of public expenditure but of public moneys. It is viewed as “the strongest supporter of Treasury Control”.

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By Devender Singh Aswal

It is a matter of delight that the Parliament is celebrating the centenary of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), its oldest committee. The PAC, which is older than our republic, has chairs of Commonwealth parliaments, including Pakistan and Bangladesh. These chairs have been invited to grace the occasion.

The president would be inaugurating the celebrations on December 4, 2021, and the valedictory session would be addressed by the vice-president and the prime minister the following day. 

The genesis of the PAC is intertwined with the Government of India Act, 1919, under which India had, for the first time, a bicameral legislature—the Legislative Assembly and the Council of States. Sir Fryderick Whyte, the president of the Legislative Assembly, nurtured in the traditions of the British House of Commons, set up the first PAC in 1921 and WM Hailey was its first ex-officio chairman, being the finance member in the Executive Council headed by the Governor General of India.

The PAC became a parliamentary committee when India became a republic and since then, the chairperson of the Committee is appointed by the Speaker from its 15 members of the Lok Sabha. From 1954-55, seven members of the Rajya Sabha were also made members of the Committee, making a combined strength of 22.

In 1967, MR Masani, a member of the Swatantra party—an Opposition group—was appointed chairman by Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, a fiercely independent Speaker of the Lok Sabha (later became the 7th president), laying the foundation of the convention of the PAC chair going to the Opposition. It is due to this edifying convention, preserved till date, that Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury of the Congress heads the PAC in its centenary year.

It would be pertinent to recall that the origin of the PAC is closely intermixed with the evolution of parliamentary democracy in Great Britain. In times when the PAC was viewed for its adversarial role, rather than as a friend and guardian of the public exchequer, it was Gladstone, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the premier of Great Britain, who moved a motion in 1861 for appointment of the PAC “as a permanent piece of Commons’ financial machinery for exercising effective control over the appropriation of public moneys”. 

The adoption of the motion symbolised the eventual triumph of the democratic principle of parliamentary control over public purse. Remarkably, the motion was moved by the prime minister to assist and enable the House of Commons to keep unremitting vigil and control over the finances of his own government.  Noting that the PAC was far from effective to attain the intended objective of mounting effective financial oversight, the British Parliament passed the Exchequer and Audit Department Act, 1866, making it mandatory to audit government accounts annually and their examination by the PAC. The enactment proved immensely helpful as the well-documented audit reports of the comptroller and auditor general of India (C&AG) became a valuable tool for scrutiny of public expenditure. Since then, the PAC became a scourge of civil servants who squandered public money, caused wasteful expenditure or whose acts of omission and commission led to loss of public revenue.

As per its mandate, the Indian PAC has assiduously built a formidable reputation as a powerful parliamentary watchdog, not only of public expenditure but of public moneys. The Committee, in the words of one of its legendary chairmen, Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, “chases the rupee—where it comes from and where it goes”.  Thus, apart from going into the wisdom, fidelity and efficacy of expenditure, the Committee assures itself, and the Parliament, whether the money due to the treasury has been realised or whether there has been a loss or leakage of revenue. The Constitution Review Commission, headed by Justice Venkatachaliah, aptly observed that “the PAC is the conscience keeper of the nation in financial matters”.

As an official privileged to be associated with the drafting of reports on subjects like Operation Vijay, procurement of hermetically sealed aluminium caskets, allocation of spectrum to telecom companies, Adarsh Housing Society, Commonwealth Games, allocation of coal blocks, and many more, I wish to say with certitude that successive PACs were able to make unanimous and impactful reports due to bipartisan functioning, except in the case of spectrum allocation where the Committee got polarised towards the fag end. 

Due to unanimity in an all-party parliamentary committee of both the Houses, the recommendations of the PAC are deemed to be supreme in financial matters and viewed as “the strongest supporter of Treasury Control”. At the time when the PAC was examining the C&AG report on spectrum allocation and when polarisation was visibly building within it and there was attack on its chair from some members on the establishment side, Pranab Mukherjee, then finance minister, observed: “The Indian governance system is fortified with strong checks and balances such as the PAC and the C&AG.”

The C&AG is rightly considered as “the friend, philosopher and guide of the PAC”. The PAC can exercise effective financial oversight if the Committee retains its bipartisan nature and the C&AG remains fiercely independent and robust in the discharge of its constitutional obligation.  There should be no doubt that if the oversight potential increases, the level of democracy enhances. According to a World Bank study, parliamentary scrutiny helps reduce poverty, remove systemic shortcomings and defects and promotes transparency, accountability and good governance, which are at the core of the functioning of the PAC and the Committee system at large.

The C&AG is an inseverable adjunct of the PAC. So it is imperative that it remains an independent, effective and credible institution. In the words of Dr BR Ambedkar in the Constituent Assembly, “the C&AG is probably the most important officer in the Constitution and his duties, I submit, are far more important than the duties even of the judiciary”. 

The C&AG must discharge his constitutional mandate without any external pressure or influence. In the context of speculation that there have been deliberate delays (in some significant cases like defense purchases) in bringing out timely audit reports or bringing reports which are skeletal and without full facts, there is a strong need to put in place an institutional mechanism for the appointment of the C&AG. 

The chief justice of India and the chairman of the PAC must be made members of the selection committee. The Parliament may consider making the C&AG a multi-member body like the Election Commission so as to avoid any public misgivings about the integrity of the institution of the C&AG and to insulate it from hydraulic pressure of the executive. Hopefully, such or more novel innovative measures would be discussed, and healthy parliamentary practices across different jurisdictions mutually shared, at the centenary celebrations of the PAC.

Also, it is an occasion to reflect and ponder how to retain the apolitical nature of the PAC and the entire Committee system. Prof Woodrow Wilson, writing about the US Congress, famously said: “The Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst Congress in its Committee-rooms is Congress at work.”

This holds equally good about the Indian Committee system, including, more so, the PAC. Examples abound when the Houses are adjourned or proceedings stalled, but the Committees have been meeting and conducting their usual business, unperturbed by the political cloud engulfing the Parliament proceedings.

Unfortunately, of late, there have been attempts by some backbenchers to prevent examination of a subject by the Committee so that acts of omission or commission of the executive are not subjected to parliamentary scrutiny. In one particular case, a motion of breach of privilege was brought against a chairman to prevent testimony of government witnesses in the Pegasus spyware case. Some members even took the novel plea that when the Opposition is stalling the business of the House, they have no moral right to attend sittings of the Committees. Such a bizarre, offbeat argument can be made only by those who do not understand the role and functions of the Committees.

At times, there is deliberate and unconscionable delay in furnishing the statistics or the information sought by the PAC or other Committees is incomplete. If such practices by the ruling party members continue unabated, it would sound the death knell of our Committee system, which is known for unanimity and well-considered recommendations. Greater onus is on the party in power to create conducive conditions to be exemplary and edifying so as to enlist cooperation from the other side—the numerical minority—and to build unanimity and consensus, the cornerstone of the Committee system.

A lot of pious and platitudinous talk is imminent, and for good, on an occasion like the centenary celebrations of an august constitutional body like the PAC. Posterity celebrates laudable achievements. The present will become past and in times, future. Successor PACs would, hopefully, recall with pride and celebrate the contribution of this epoch of their history.

Also, this is an occasion to remind us of the separation of power principle enshrined in Article 98 of the Constitution which directs that “each House of Parliament shall have a separate secretarial staff” and that “Parliament may by law regulate the recruitment and conditions of service of persons appointed, to the secretarial staff of either House of Parliament”.

Unfortunately, the constitutional provision has been brazenly disregarded as seniormost bureaucratic positions are being held by retired or other trusted officials, as part of largesse of the executive branch. No law has yet been enacted to regulate recruitment and the service conditions of parliamentary officials.

However, it is a happy augury that Chairman of the Rajya Sabha M Venkaiah Naidu—a statesman and scholar—upheld the Constitution by appointing an in-House officer of proven experience and calibre as the secretary general, resisting all governmental pressure. 

In many countries, they have parliamentary commissions for recruitment and service related matters of the legislature secretariat. India takes legitimate pride being the largest democracy of the world, yet it has miles to travel before others view it as a model democracy and a “Vishwa Guru” and a role model of democratic practices and traditions.

—The writer is ex-Addl Secretary, Lok Sabha, and serviced the PAC and other leading committees of Parliament over three decades

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