JPC or PAC - the argument continues

Friday, December 24, 2010

NEW DELHI - Which is better empowered to probe the suspected irregularities in the 2G spectrum allocation — a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) or the Public Accounts Committee (PAC)? The argument between the government and the opposition rages amid fears that the deadlock that washed out the entire winter session of parliament may spill over to the more crucial budget session next year.

Why are the two sides unwilling to bend on the issue?

The opposition is of the view that the PAC has a limited jurisdiction and that won’t be enough to dig deep into the irregularities believed to have been commited in the allocation of second-generation telephony spectrum, a finite national resource. The government, not giving in to the opposition’s JPC demand, says a multi-pronged probe by the CBI, Enforcement Directorate, Income Tax and the PAC was enough to investigate the charges.

Here is a guide to the formation, jurisdiction and powers of the two parliamentary committees - one which is ad hoc and the other that regularly scrutinizes the government budget spending.

Definition: The PAC is constituted every year to scrutinise how the money sanctioned by parliament has been spent by the government. It takes references only from the government auditor report, which limits its role.

The composition and functioning of a JPC, a structured but ad hoc committee, are governed by parliament. It is set up for probing a specific issue and its duration is limited. Such a committee is set up by a motion passed in parliament. Its terms of references depend on the motion and this is not limited to the scrutiny of government finances.

Effectiveness: Both the JPC and the PAC can only look at documents and examine ministry officials who testify before them. They can arrive at independent conclusions based on their probe.

The PAC expresses no opinion on points of general government policy, but it is within its jurisdiction to point out whether there has been a financial loss to the exchequer in carrying out that policy.

The mandate of a JPC depends on the motion constituting it. Its recommendations have persuasive value but it cannot force the government to take any action. Many past JPC reports have been ignored by the government of the day. The government can decide to conduct its own investigations on the basis of a JPC report. But it has to report to parliament on the follow-up action on the JPC recommendations.

A JPC report can recommend the prosecution or the change in government policies, for example, cancellation of 2G licence, but the government can disagree with the JPC and refuse to take such action.

Power: Can a minister be called to testify before the committees? If the PAC wants to question a minister on any issue, the committee has to get an approval from the speaker before doing so. The last time a minister has appeared before the PAC was in 1966 when then agriculture minister C. Subramaniam was asked to do so.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has volunteered to depose before the PAC if required on the telecom spectrum allocation scandal.

For JPC to ask for any minister to testify depends on its terms of references, which usually allow it to question any government functionary, including the prime minister.

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