Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

Towards a slim-fit govt

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Column in Business Standard, June 3, 2016

Mr Modi has not only set an encouraging record by including seven women but also stuck to his guns by eliminating close kin of political leaders from the race for berths

Amidst all the tub-thumping of the NDA’s birthday celebrations (is it the dawn of the “Terrible Twos”?) one slogan from the summer of 2014 is conspicuous by its omission. Whatever happened to “Maximum governance, minimum government”? You don’t hear about it much.

In terms of size the Narendra Modi-led government was said to be appreciably more compact than that of UPA II – but actually it’s that not all that trimmer. Manmohan Singh led a 77-member ministry (32 Cabinet ministers, 12 ministers of state with independent charge and a 33-strong contingent of ministers of state). The current Cabinet strength of 26 ministers, 12 ministers of state (independent charge) and 31 ministers of state adds up to 69.

Any government-formation is inevitably a checkerboard exercise in accommodating allies, and regional, caste and gender representatives. Mr Modi has not only set an encouraging record by including seven women but also stuck to his guns by eliminating close kin of political leaders from the race for berths. Some shifting or shedding of members is also an ongoing business, as in the case of Sarbananda Sonowal, former minister of youth affairs and sports, who is now chief minister of Assam.

None of this, however, is transformative and path-breaking to give full ballast to the idea of “Maximum governance, minimum government”. A government that is lean and light-footed means tight-knit, well-coordinated departments, high on efficiency and targeted deliverables, not hydra-headed ministries with multiple departments that lumber along – bunched up any old way with ministers shedding more heat than light. Why shouldn’t there be a single Ministry of Transport that encompasses railways, road transport, shipping, airports and inland waterways instead of so many? Many countries with vastly superior road, rail and river networks do. But we have sanyasin Uma Bharti in charge of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation whose saffron robes have singularly failed to propitiate the growing horrors of drought, water shortages and filthy rivers.

Ministers in earnest with get-up-and-go reputations end up expounding on subjects that are not strictly in their remit. In an interview with The Times of India last week Nitin Gadkari, in charge of road transport and highways, holds forth on battery-operated buses: “I feel every bus should be air-conditioned, modern and should be converted to electric.” Shouldn’t Venkaiah Naidu at urban development be giving us the news? Or is he too preoccupied managing parliamentary affairs?

Mr Gadkari refers to roadblocks such as land acquisition and forest and environment clearances. But he fails to mention railways. A former chairman of the National Highways Authority of India says that it can take upwards of a year for permissions to build overbridges at railway crossings. So why can’t Mr Gadkari and the redoubtable Suresh Prabhu at the railway ministry together bridge the gap?

If ministries with natural synergy came together, governance would be optimised, ministers wouldn’t talk at cross-purposes and government departments have singular chain of command.

Many ministries could be conflated for better and faster results. Why shouldn’t social justice, empowerment, panchayati raj and rural development all be headed under ministry of agriculture and farmers’ welfare? Why are the ministries of power, petroleum & natural gas and renewable energy separate entities? Why is youth affairs functioning under the Ministry of Sports when it should rightly be an adjunct of HRD ministry’s departments of literacy, school education and higher education. Why on earth is the Crafts Museum – a popular culture and tourist destination in New Delhi designed by the late architect Charles Correa – being managed by the Ministry of Textiles?

Far from cutting down, government departments go on multiplying, amoeba-like, into individual ministries. Their expansion is frequently the result of political whimsy and currently fashionable slogans. “Skilling India” had barely dropped from the PM’s lips as an example of Modi-speak before it emerged as a distinct Ministry of Skill Development & Entrepreneurship.

There used to be a forgotten entity in the dusty backwaters of government known as the department of Indian medicine and homeopathy. But on November 9, 2014, it morphed into AYUSH, a full-fledged Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy Systems. “Welcome to AYUSH,” announces its fancy website against green health-giving amla fruit, then dwindles into pictures of boring suited men attending Indo-US seminars on traditional medicine and the Yoga Day extravaganza on Rajpath led by Mr Modi in a prayerful asana. AYUSH minister with independent charge is Sripad Naik, a long-standing BJP MP from Goa who, well, had to be dumped somewhere in the mechanics of ministry-formation.

It isn’t only ministry-seeking hopefuls that led to maximum government but a phalanx of bureaucrats perpetually jockeying for jobs in Delhi. There are 90-plus secretaries in government departments ruling the roost, and an equal number of secretary-equivalent positions. With a Pay Commission award imminent, is a slim-fit government possible?

 

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