Early into his tenure as prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was asked to give time for meetings of various boards, trusts and societies of which the prime minister is the chairman.
They ranged from national wildlife board to the trust which administers the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial in Amritsar, and the Nehru memorial trust which runs a museum and library in Teen Murti house, the official residence of Jawaharlal Nehru as prime minister in Delhi.
Vajpayee was told that he was heading more than 100 institutions and official committees, including as the acharya of the Visva Bharati university, founded by Rabindranath Tagore in Santiniketan. Given the tremendous demand on the prime minister's time, many of these bodies were unable to have frequent meetings, which continued during the rule of Manmohan Singh and now of Narendra Modi.
Interestingly, more and more committees and boards were created with either the prime minister or his senior colleagues as chairman. Now, it has become axiomatic for both home and culture ministries which set up jumbo-sized committees to celebrate the birth centenaries and other landmarks of religious, cultural and political leaders to make the prime minister as the chairman of the celebration committee.
Interestingly, Vajpayee's office had asked the cabinet secretary to compile the list of autonomous and semi-autonomous institutions funded by the government in all ministries. There were more than 10,000 entities ranging from central universities to animal welfare board, cultural academies to the welfare of special categories of persons.
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When Arun Jaitley became finance minister, he asked the expenditure department in the ministry to find out how much was being spent on these institutions and how they could be made to become self-sufficient. When he got the report, he found most of these universities, boards, councils and academies were subsidizing services even for those in high-income groups.
Jaitley also found that many of these bodies were very lax in collecting genuine dues on the small fees they charged. He started with the information and broadcasting ministry which he headed till recently by ensuring that the Press Council of India, which hears complaints by and against newspapers and journalists, realized its dues from those whom it serviced.
Under prodding by the finance ministry, several ministries asked the government-funded bodies under them to recover fee charges, and also increase the charges for application forms, processing and providing services, especially as the users were companies and partnership firms.
Jaitley is convinced that government expenditure has ballooned, and cross-subsidies need to be curtailed and eliminated. Public sector companies which are members of the standing committee of public enterprises which interviews candidate for posts of chief executive and directors of Mahanavaratna companies, are being asked to pay heftier fees so that the SCOPE (Standing Conference of Public Enterprises) which functions from an octagonal building in Delhi can recover some of its costs.
As these experimental measures yielded results, the finance ministry now has asked all government funded autonomous and semi-autonomous bodies to recover user fees, which means increasing student fees in government's universities and colleges.
In Delhi University, the annual fee is less than the parking fee for a car in some of the campus colleges. The human resource development ministry has also been asked to streamline the scholarships provided in central universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University and Delhi University where scholars keep on enrolling for one master's course after another.
The Archaeological Survey of India has already increased admission charges for some of the famous monuments maintained by it, like Taj Mahal in Agra and Qutab Minar in Delhi.
These subtle moves which are not big revenue earners are however prone to stir anger among users, who till now had these services either free or at very low rates.