NEW DELHI: The national debate that dominated the last years of the Congress-led UPA regime was whether Sonia Gandhi trusted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The answer seems to be “no”. The Sunday Standard last week had exposed documents showing that the National Advisory Council (NAC) chairperson was acting as a Super PM. Now, fresh files have surfaced showing her displeasure over Manmohan’s inability to push the Congress party’s agenda in government. The NAC gave instructions, criticised the Planning Commission, sought explanation on the execution of its recommendations and rode roughshod over bureaucrats. The new files reveal that UPA-II remained just as NAC-centric as it was during UPA-I
Recharging the Government
A letter dated December 26, 2005 (No. 1527/CP/NAC/05), exclusively accessed by The Sunday Standard, reveals that the NAC chairperson did not trust Manmohan’s economic reforms to deliver to the poor.
“Since development is essentially a product of efficient institutions rather than the other way around, the focus has to shift from maximising the quantum of development funding to maximising the development outcomes and the effectiveness of public service delivery.”
“Difficult challenges are more and more visible on the horizon. Concerted policy action is needed to ameliorate the living conditions of the poor who are increasingly concentrated in the least affluent states. The NAC feels that this requires not only additional resources but more importantly sound policies and efficient delivery mechanism,” then NAC Chairperson wrote in her letter to PM Singh.
Information, Sonia Style
Was NAC, credited to have authored transparency law, withholding information from the public? Sonia had claimed in a speech, “UPA brought the RTI (Right to Information Act) because we genuinely want to fight corruption.” Here, we see the beginning of a stark contrast.
Exclusive documents reveal that the National Advisory Council (NAC) resisted transparency in its functioning and allowed only filtered and tailored information to be made public. On Friday, September 30 2005, Sonia Gandhi chaired a meeting where it was decided that only NAC members could view the records; and that too on demand.
“The NAC secretariat would continue to keep detailed records of discussions of the NAC meetings which could be viewed by members or made available to them on demand. Such records would not be placed on the website,” said the minutes of meeting.
File no. A-11034/33/2012-13-NAC, file no. A-11034/35/2012-13-NAC and file no. A-11034/37/2012-13-NAC of the UPA-II regime reveal the discomfiture among bureaucrats working in the council. Responses to RTI applications were selective, involving back and forth file movements between the NAC and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
The Real Boss
Following The Sunday Standard expose of NAC documents last week, the Congress had claimed that it was Manmohan Singh who was the real captain of the UPA ship and the published files belonged to a period when Sonia Gandhi was not at the helm of affairs at the NAC from March 2006 to June 2010 when it was reconstituted. However, records reveal that NAC was formulating and influencing UPA policies between 2004-2006 and 2010-2014 when Sonia was the chairperson. On December 9, 2013, the NAC decided to review the outcomes of the education cess levied during the UPA regime. Dr Rita Sharma, Secretary NAC, wrote a letter to Rajarshri Bhattacharya, then Secretary Department of School Education and Literacy, (File No. (50011/7/2013-NAC) to depute a senior officer of the ministry who was “well versed” with the subject to brief the NAC secretariat on December 12, 2013, at 11:30 am.
“As you are aware, the government of India had levied 2 per cent cess on major taxes in the year 2004 to give a boost to education in the country. It was enhanced to 3 per cent with effect from the year 2007-08. The members of the NAC have desired to have an update about outcomes of the imposition of the education cess by the government during the last decade,” Rita Sharma wrote in her letter.
NAC also recommended an additional health cess. “A 2 per cent additional health cess on all direct taxes would yield `17,500 crore and a 3 per cent additional health cess on all direct taxes would yield`26,000 crore,” a file reads. Minutes of the meeting show GG Pai, Director, Department of Revenue, and Nagesh Singh, Economic Advisor, attended the briefing at 2 Motilal Nehru Place. The NAC was informed about education cess collected for last three years; the total collection was `27,194 crore in 2011-12; `31,001 crore in 2012-13 and `36,644 crore in 2013-14 (BE).
NAC Targeted Government
The NAC was critical of the government’s implementation and capability of certain important policies, energy being one of them. On November 5, 2005, Sonia dispatched a letter (N. 1380/CP/NAC/0520) to Manmohan, along with a presentation that highlighted action points for the government to follow for action on the energy sector. It also flagged institutional overload and fatigue in the Planning Commission. The slides noted:
1. “Energy Coordination Committee under PM (Manmohan Singh) already set up in July 2005. But its focus appears to be energy security.”
2. “Second option could be to entrust responsibility to Planning Commission with a clear mandate. But Planning Commission may be suffering from institutional overload and fatigue.”
3. “Third option is to set up full-time energy policy board that would catalyze, actions on integrated energy policy across sectors, including technology,”
The NAC questioned public sector monopoly in the coal sector, highlighting the fact that though India has 10 per cent of the world’s coal resources—the fourth after USA, Russia and China—it imports coal.
“Coal expansion needs massive investment and technology. But coal still public sector monopoly, perhaps only remaining one. Future?”
“Coal expansion will have environmental impact. Kyoto II? Hence, efficiency in utilisation crucial. Potential for coal based methane,” the presentation sent to the PM said.
Making Government Agent of Congress Policy
The NAC’s role in using the government to implement the Congress party’s vote bank policies is apparent from the files. A note dated March 24, 2014, from RK Pandey, Deputy Secretary, NAC, admits that the Ministry of Labour & Employment showed significant progress in the implementation of the advisory body’s recommendations. He also clarified that the NAC chairperson approved the agenda for the meeting, which was to be briefed by Secretary, Labour Ministry.
The note in File No-11012-003-2014 further said, “Request has been received from NAC members seeking update on the progress made in the implementation of NAC recommendations on social security for unorganised sector workers. These recommendations were communicated to the government in April 2012.”
“Ministry of Labour & Employment has also indicated that significant progress has been made with respect to the implementation of the recommendations of NAC. Therefore, it is proposed request (sic) Secretary, Ministry of Labour and Employment, to brief the council in this regard in place of welfare of plantation labour in India,” the NAC note added.
PMO Under Scrutiny
A note by under secretary-level officer (11018/1/2012-NAC) dated May 13, 2013, reveals the extraordinary power NAC exercised over the PMO to get its recommendations cleared. The note mentioned that the PMO formed a committee of secretaries under the Cabinet Secretary on January 8, 2013, to handle social security for unorganised workers.
“An inter-ministerial monitoring group in the Planning Commission was asked to give a report on certain issues. The report of the IMMG has since been submitted to the cabinet secretariat,” it said.
The PM’s policies were under NAC’s scrutiny. On improving sex ratio at birth, the NAC note highlighted PMO’s remarks, “Inter-Ministerial Coordination Committee headed by the Cabinet Secretary is monitoring this subject.” On development of minorities, PMO said, “Principal Secretary to PM has written to the Cabinet Secretary on April 1, 2013, requesting him to monitor the progress of PM’s new 15-point programme through a committee of secretaries at least once in six months and to request the ministries to take quarterly meetings being chaired by Secretary, Ministry of Minority Affairs seriously.”
Force Majeure: Babus Ignored
NAC documents clearly reveal that the body rode roughshod over bureaucrats to dictate processes. In the first part of the NAC files published in this newspaper last week, documents had revealed that despite objections raised by government officers, the UPA went ahead with NAC’s recommendations on the Pre-legislative Consultative Process. Minutes of the meeting of the Committee of Secretaries held on January 10, 2014, exposed their discomfort. Secretary, Legislative Department, PK Malhotra said, “Pre-legislative consultative policy might not be feasible in all cases and certain cases of urgency including promulgation of ordinances will need to be exempted from the proposed process.” The-then Home Secretary, Anil Goswami, suggested that pre-legislative consultation was required before enacting a law. He argued that urgent legislation, including ordinances, should be exempted from consultation. Secretary, Ministry of Corporate Affairs, argued that keeping in view the subject matter of the rules being framed, the ministries/departments could be given the discretion to decide on pre-legislative consultation. Their concerns, as apparent from the minutes, were overruled by the then Cabinet Secretary Ajit Seth, who observed “adoption of pre-legislative consultation would be desirable, as it would make the process of law making and policy-making more participative.”
Ajit Seth’s assertion may have found strength from a letter dated May 28, 2013, from Sonia Gandhi to Manmohan Singh asking him to consider NAC’s recommendation. The letter (N 18014/4/2011-NAC-8301) informed the PM that the NAC, in its meeting on April 26, 2013, deliberated on issues relating to Pre-Legislative Processes and has proposed a framework to create institutionalised spaces for the participation of citizens in the pre-legislative process by way of proactive disclosure of proposed laws or rules, consultations and feedback systems.
“The recommendations have been prepared after extensive deliberations with concerned ministries, legal experts and public feedback. I am enclosing the NAC recommendations for your consideration,” Sonia’s letter said.
Subsequently on February 5, 2014, Secretary Legislative Department, PK Malhotra, who was resisting such idea, had to inform all the ministries to adopt the process as suggested by NAC (Letter No. 11/35/2013-L.I).
“Taking into consideration the recommendations of the NAC, the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution and the practice followed in other countries, the Committee of Secretaries has formulated a policy on pre-legislative consultation which should invariably be followed by every Ministry/Department of the Central government before any legislative proposal is submitted to the Cabinet for its consideration and approval,” Malhotra wrote.
Proxy Rule Went On
Although Sonia Gandhi had resigned from the post of NAC Chairperson in March 2006 over an Office-of-Profit issue, only to return in 2010, the powerful council’s dominance over Manmohan Singh’s government continued in her absence. A presentation made by the Shipping Ministry on June 20, 2007, at the organisation’s office at 2 Motilal Nehru Place on the future action plan and problems of the shipping sector says it all.
Slide No.17 in File No. 2 highlights “Future Plan of Action -2011-12”. It shows the government was mulling developing five new ports and creating a corpus fund for equipment modernization with the enhancement of dredging capacity in the country.
Slide No. 19 informed NAC members about the problems the ministry was facing due to “slow decision making and inadequate global investment”. The presentation also noted “connectivity, bringing maritime states on board and security clearance” as other major hurdles. NAC members noted that given the steady GDP growth and expansion of the manufacturing sector, the demand for port infrastructure is increasing substantially, since around 75 per cent of the export of manufactured goods happens through ports.
With a higher demand for electric power, the increased requirement of coal to meet concomitant port infrastructure has to be put in place. “In this context, the importance of a well-planned strategy for the western sector keeping in view the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor project was underlined as also the need for timely acquisition of land for port and hinterland facilities and to block suitable areas for the future development of ports,” the minutes said.
MGNREGA Aims Spelt Out
The highlighted portion in a letter dated March 30, 2011, from NAC Secretary Rita Sharma on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) explained the thinking behind the vote catcher scheme. “MGNREGA in the long run is not for creating a permanent army of unskilled workers—it is successful when it is not needed,” it read. “Objective should be to move from mere wage employment to sustainable rural livelihoods,” the note stated.
Just a few days earlier, Sharma had written to Rural Development Secretary BK Sinha on March 4, 2011, (Letter -N26011/1/2011-NAC-1469) informing him that “NAC in its meeting dated 26.2.2011 approved constitution of a working group on natural resources management (NRM) in convergence with MGNREGS, specially with focus on rainfed areas.”
She further asked Sinha to send a detailed report covering four points: “(a) guidelines issued on natural resources management in convergence with MGNREGS (MGNREGA) (b) the progress made by the states in response to Ministry of Rural Development’s guidelines on convergence for improving natural resources, (c) best practices, if any, being promoted by the states and (d) constraints, if any, coming in the way of making best use of MGNREGS funds for investing on natural resources management for livelihood security.”
“The report may please be sent within two weeks for enabling the working group to identify critical areas for deliberations on the subject in the NAC,” the letter to Rural Development Secretary said.