Public Accounts Committee (and a story about mosquitoes)

Sunder’s work in the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament was a formative time for him as a bureaucrat. It was work that he took great pride in. He was a young Undersecretary at the time, and worked there during the years of the Emergency, when democratic freedoms in the country were suspended. Unfortunately, archives of that time and that work are hard to come by, so we have sporadically tried to find whatever we can. It seems appropriate to post some of the results of this occasional detective work as we mark the tenth anniversary of our beloved Sunder’s passing. At a time of increasing authoritarianism around the world, it is sobering to remember the work of a generation of bureaucrats and journalists who acted with integrity and forced accountability upon those with greater power than themselves. To wit, this anecdote.

Among the numerous reports that were produced by the PAC in this period was one relating to the operations of the Genetic Control of Mosquitoes Research Unit (GCMRU), an experiment with yellow fever propagating mosquitoes that was in operation in Delhi by the World Health Organization (WHO) in collaboration with Indian scientists. By a strange coincidence, in 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nandita Haksar wrote an article in The Wire about the investigation into this project carried out by two outstanding journalists, C. Raghavan (the head of Press Trust of India) and K.S. Jayaraman, the Science Correspondent for PTI. Our young academic friend, Dr Himanshu Upadhyaya (Azim Premji University, Bangalore) was able to provide Nandita Haksar and us with links to the PAC report and the ‘Action Taken’ report that were tabled before Parliament.

Sunder was very honoured and enthused by his assignment to the PAC, where he served under two successive Chairmen whom he greatly admired, Jyotirmoy Bosu of the CPI (M) and Hiren Mukherjee of the CPI (I). One of the things Jyotirmoy Bosu innovated in the PAC was to follow up on issues outside of those flagged by the CAG’s reports, mostly by picking up interesting stories in the media. Those reports had to be written by Sunder from the material provided by his sources, and he was very deeply involved in them. That is how he came to work closely with Mr Raghavan and Dr Jayaraman. Apart from the yellow fever research, there were other scientific projects that the PAC examined, one of them relating to the Bombay Natural History Society (reportedly there were cameras attached to the legs of the birds to track migratory patterns, but they were suspected of being used by the CIA for spying on Russia in reality—remember, this was the height of the Cold War).

The GCMRU report was widely pooh-poohed (one American newspaper carried the headline: ‘India suspects mosquitoes of being CIA agents!’). It was vindicated by the PAC report, and although it encountered resistance by the Indira Gandhi government, the projects were finally wound up thanks to the persistence of all those involved. Sunder’s role as a civil servant was of course invisible, and he is nowhere mentioned by name. This is the nature of government civil service. But I remember those years vividly (it was the year Kaushik was born). I hardly saw Sunder as he spent nights working at the office (with his keen young steno typing up his handwritten pages, hundreds of them). So when I read Nandita’s article in 2020, I picked up the courage to write to her. Copies of my letter to her, and links to her article in The Wire, are reproduced below.

Dear Nandita (if I may),

My name is Rajeswari Sunder Rajan. I apologize at the outset for writing out of the blue like this. But when I read your recent article in Scroll, ‘Stranger than Fiction’, I could not resist reaching out to you.

By the most extraordinary coincidence, I read your article at the exact time that a young friend, Himanshu Upadhyaya, sent me links to various PAC reports that came out between 1974 and 1976. My interest in them was because my late husband, N. Sunder Rajan, had been the (literal) writer (I won’t say author) of these reports. He was at the time a 30-year-old Undersecretary in the PAC. Since he passed away in 2014, our son Kaushik and I have been trying to recover some of the work he did as a civil servant, work that is substantial and often significant but tends to go unrecognized. We had watched and admired (and frequently been exasperated by) his extraordinary dedication to his work in a career of nearly 40 years, and especially during his PAC tenure when he hand-wrote the many hundreds of pages-long reports that the committee produced even during the Emergency.

I had come to know of Himanshu’s interest in the work of the Indian Audits and Accounts service some years ago, and he has been very helpful in tracking down the PAC reports for us. He had found the one on scientific research in India just two days earlier because I had specifically asked him for it. I remembered the time when my husband had been working on it, the visits of Mr Raghavan and Dr Jayaraman to our house for meetings, and the late nights at the office and at home he had spent over it. So it was wonderful to be able to read it.

I did some further searches and found the very critical and mocking Nature editorial (I recall my husband’s dismay), as well as the WHO denial and the brilliant rebuttal by Messrs Jayaraman and Raghavan. (I have attached both in case you’re interested). It was of course the height of the Cold War, and the PAC was headed by left party leaders, so all this is most interesting from a historical perspective as well.

On a personal level, it was important for us that my husband’s profound admiration for these two men and for the two successive PAC Chairmen and some of the committee’s members, was lifelong.

And then I came across your great piece in Scroll!  That suddenly some research from 45 years ago should surface in this way was quite amazing. Your article was published on July 17, my husband’s sixth death anniversary, even as Kaushik and I were trying to update a website we had created in his memory and were hoping to add some material to it.

Let me introduce myself, quickly if belatedly. I used to teach (English) in Delhi in Miranda House, and then held a fellowship at Teen Murti. We had friends in common in Delhi I am sure. I moved to Oxford after that, and now teach at New York University. Kaushik teaches Anthropology at the University of Chicago, and works on health, medicine and the pharmaceutical industry. He and I are not quite sure what we want to achieve by resurrecting Sunder’s work, except that we share a vague but strong feeling that in these dark times the integrity and dedication that civil servants like him practised– and there were many, including of course your distinguished father– is something to hold on to. We have been trying to understand how these values– that were not radical or sexy in any way– may have helped to prevent the descent into chaos and corruption that we are witnessing today.  And this goes for the press (giants like C. Raghavan) and the judiciary too.

Your article has been very important for us, and it’s very important in itself for the connections you make. I guess this is just a long-winded way of saying ‘thank you.’

With warm good wishes and, once again, profound admiration and gratitude,

Raji Sunder Rajan


  • Nanditha Haksar article in Wire:

  • Interview with Jayaraman where he mentions the PAC reports:

The following article by Dr. Himanshu Upadhyay (Azim Premji University) which appeared on 21.6.2015, has a reference to Sunder’s work in the Public Account Committee in the 1970s, which I have highlighted. See:
Grateful thanks to Dr Upadhyay for sharing it with us.

We don’t listen to Audit, we just keep lecturing Auditors

This week a friend nudges me to read a report by a civil society organization which has been known for its work on studying and de-mystifying budget documents. It reminded me of my article last year, where I took an umbrage at this tendency of lecturing auditors displayed so spectacularly by legislators. It was the time for yet another biannual conference of Accountants General and PAC chairperson and Finance Minister used the stage to launch a criticism of CAG auditors.

Reporting in Public Interest, a new report penned by Nilachal Acharya, Subrat Das, Trisha Agarwala and Priyanka Samy and published by Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA), appears to have been prepared as a discussion document for the same 27th Accountants General Conference in October 2014. It is not known to citizens at large if CBGA was invited by CAG of India to prepare such a document as discussion item. It was definitely an item of casual tea-break conversation as late as February 2015, with someone sharing the information that there exists such a report, adding that one would not know if the report is accessible to public at large. More than six months after, on one fine morning in March 2015, CBGA thought it appropriate to upload the ironically titled report Reporting in Public Interest on its website (

The report is divided into two portions. The first part deals with the features of this constitutional institution, its auditing and reporting process and concerns with regarding to reporting of audit findings. The second part presents perceptions of stakeholders based on interviews with selected respondents.

Too Much or Too Little

Last month at a training workshop for civil society activist in Bangalore, this author was asked “why does banking sector remain outside the ambit of CAG audit”. Without going into technicalities, we can understand the implication of the question in the backdrop of malpractices within banking sector that was revealed in a cobrapost sting. However, if the CBGA report (p. 08) is to be believed, “stakeholders” feel that it is due to volume of audit reports being so high that a proper follow up and discussions in PAC is not ensured. CBGA report goes on to state:

“However, we also need to take into account in this context the view that staff supporting the Parliamentary/ Legislative committees, who read the audit reports and support the member of the Committees in comprehending the relevant points made in the reports, might not have adequate capacity to perform their roles effectively. Hence there also needs to be some effort towards enhancing capacity of those officials.”

Is CAG of India doing too much auditing or is there too little remains a moot question. We may get a proper answer by revisiting the decade of 1970s and how Public Accounts Committee was responding to growing volume of audit reports. Unfortunately, CBGA report remains conspicuously silent on giving its readers an impression of how the volume of audit work has grown progressively and what processes had been put in place so that PAC can deal with the audit findings. Certain section of civil society loves the phrase, ‘capacity building’ but we need to ask whose capacities are being talked about, when they talk about the staff supporting parliamentary/ legislative committees. Right from mid 1970s, usually IAAS officers are sent on deputation to assist these committees. One also need to understand that CAG of India is often regarded as “friend, philosopher and guide” to Public Accounts Committee and Committee on Public Undertaking and attends all meetings. He/she also can speak up in case his/her guidance is required. Within three years during mid-1970s, PAC had prepared 137 reports on audit findings, when late N. Sunder Rajan assisted PAC in his role as Under Secretary and on subsequent promotion as Deputy Secretary in Lok Sabha secretariat.

Availability of the reports on CAG website

CBGA report also contains an assertion (p. 10) which is only half-true, when it alleges that “In India, the audit reports, which are uploaded on the website of the CAG (once these are laid in parliament/ state legislatures), do not carry the date of their submission (either the date of submission by the CAG or the date of report being laid in parliament/ state legislature)”. The second part of this assertion is definitely false as the date of a specific report being laid in parliament/ state legislature is prominently displayed on the page on CAG website which contains hyperlinks to different chapters of that specific report. Those who do actually care to read CAG audit reports would also remember that the text of the audit findings usually have the last paragraph that mentions when did CAG of India share with audited entity/ ministry Draft Audit Report and usually incorporate replies, if any.

Protracted Engagement with Public sought

CBGA report cites a few consultations with civil society experts, ministry officials and corporates on issues such as environmental auditing and audit of water pollution on a few occasions. Citing positive outcomes of this, CBGA report recommends that “the office of CAG could think of replicating similar exercises of public engagement across a range of government programmes and schemes in the coming years”.

Issues that got missed out

CBGA report has missed out on issues that need urgent attention before the heaven of transparency so eagerly sought by CBGA and other citizen groups can unfold. The first and foremost of these is: how much do the common man and woman, out there on street, know about the decision making processes within CAG? Right from the bi-annual AG conference that took place in 2008, there has been discussion about the IAAS officers and IAAD fraternity seeking the amendment in CAG (Duties, Powers and Condition of Services) Act, 1971. Media also speaks at times about a draft amendment bill, but why has the draft bill remained a document that is not accessible to citizens passionate about public finance and accountability issues?

CBGA report has also failed to display an inward gaze on the continued apathy of citizen groups on acting on audit findings and seeking substantial follow up. Shouldn’t budget analysis and engaging with audit reports have become after years of advocacy, ‘everyone’s business’? This author was once told by someone that “audit reports are gold mines, the sad fact is that people don’t mine them”. Even as I finish reading and reviewing CBGA report, these words ring in my ears. I think, we the people, can’t break away from being accountability challenged so long as we continue to lecture auditors, rather than taking the first step to “listen to them”.

May the tribe of those who listen to CAG auditors grow, you have nothing to lose but a delusion that it requires a MA or PhD in Economics from CESP, JNU to do so!

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