When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced that Mr V.K. Shunglu, former Comptroller and Auditor-General of India, would specially probe the Commonwealth Games mess, it surprised many. With six organisations already mandated to conduct investigations, what was Mr Shunglu going to detect, notwithstanding a marked resemblance to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes?
However, Mr Shunglu himself clarified his role on October 23 by stating that he would look into the “decision-making processes” and identify whether it was strong enough. If indeed that is his term of reference it is welcome because such an inquiry could well pinpoint the way the government works and expose the degree to which the main players missed the larger picture, parried, deflected, delayed or prevaricated during the process of decision-making. It is time to find out if these acts of omission constituted misconduct.
For starters, Mr Shunglu will find that many of the delays were intentional, and a means to bypass procedures in the name of urgency. This verges on committing corruption and should be treated as such.
However, equally the “My table does not have a single file on it” ploy, which is used by many senior officers to avoid taking responsibility, also needs to be exposed. This style of (mis)management permeates throughout the bureaucracy and is, perhaps, the root cause of government delays.
Outsiders to the government expect that senior officers dispose of a proposal either by agreeing to it or replacing it with a better option. But that seldom happens. “Play safe” officers get rid of files by posing seemingly sensible questions like “What are the alternatives available?” The intention behind such a move is to avoid taking a decision.
Responding to the query would require tabulating all the alternatives available, putting a cost to each alternative, analysing which option is the best and then justifying the same. It is the person who does the analysis who will pay the price for overlooking something. Most officers at the receiving end are smart enough to give a telephonic instruction to a subordinate to suggest setting up a committee to confabulate on the alternatives available. The result: intentional responsibility shifting and delay.
Unfortunately, sleuths from the Central Vigilance Commission or the Comptroller and Auditor-General, far from castigating the officer who first failed to take the decision, considering his position, seniority and experience, over-generalise the problem in an attempt to involve everyone. The result is that no one ever gets into trouble, leave alone receives punishment.
It is hoped that Mr Shunglu will come down heavily on such backstroke bureaucrats who displayed lack of initiative and resourcefulness that can be legitimately expected from senior officers.
Another subject that needs to be probed is why the factors like return on investment and the long-term sustainability of each project were not taken into account at the time of planning. Take the case of the Commonwealth Games stadia. A company with a mandate for catalysing the development of infrastructure on commercially viable lines should have been involved from the start so that earnings from the future utilisation of the facilities could have been anticipated and costs offset against those earnings. Simply saying that the stadium will now be used for training upcoming athletes will never compensate for the maintenance costs which have to be borne by taxpayers forever.
This does not happen in any country. The responsibility for not considering cost-effective Build, Operate and Transfer (BOT) options should be squarely put on the shoulders of financial advisers who should have insisted on the adoption of remunerative alternatives.
Equally, Mr Shunglu should examine whether the empowered committees of secretaries and ministers gave tangible directions; whether they monitored target keeping; whether they intervened effectively enough and sufficiently in advance to prevent the delays and chaos that scorched the country’s reputation.
This would bring to the fore the pitfalls of depending on the committee culture which saturates our system. Committees can be useful to glean information or to overcome procedural requirements when time is short. But empowered committees are expected to do much more.
Mr Shunglu would do well to comment on the leadership and supervision by those who headed these empowered groups of secretaries and ministers. Did these bodies foresee trouble in time? Did they extract promises and take action if promises were not kept? Or did they simply grant approval to administrative and financial fait accomplis? Or dispatch hand-holders only after alarm bells rang?
It is also expected that Mr Shunglu would look into the role of persons in high authority who approved of ambitious projects despite having been advised in writing that there simply was not enough time to complete them.
One hears of several cases where the advice given was clearly negative, including large-scale renovation and restoration projects. But despite objections, these were pushed through. Equally, it must be seen whether officers tried to protect themselves by advising in writing against taking such decisions, meanwhile enthusiastically undertaking to get the job done and in time.
Whether Mr Shunglu will use this opportunity to show how people within the government acted or failed to act, or he will be guided by a routine “audit mentality” on processes alone has to be seen.
It is, perhaps, the first and only time that the government’s decision-making processes and capacity are being examined by one man and someone of substance. It is a rare opportunity to expose how our system tolerates ambivalence and deflection which at the end of the day is nothing short of wilful negligence. The sooner those who shirked responsibility are exposed, the better.