Economy 7 months ago

Mr Modi, here's the starting point for minimum government: chop 25 ministries

R Jagannathan

Since we are in that twilight zone where we don’t know who’s won the general election, but we know that the old one is on its way out, the media is abuzz with speculation on who will get what ministry if Narendra Modi wins tomorrow (16 May).

The reality is it is pointless to speculate (though, mea culpa, I have done so too) till we know the details of the kind of mandate the next government will have. The size and shape of the ministry will be decided not just by Modi, but by the kind of allies he is forced to accept in the interests of political stability. Broadly speaking, the more the allies, the more he will have to partially cede control of the agenda he has in mind.

Modi’s themesong has been “minimum government, maximum governance.” In an interview to Open magazine, he said: “The country is facing trouble on all fronts because of maximum government. It is interfering with every aspect of life; it is not for changing the lives of people, but to benefit a few rent-seekers who think it is their God-ordained right to rule.”

Bang on. The more the size and scope of government, the more intrusive, corrupt and ineffective it will be. Minimum government, at the very least, should thus mean the scrapping of entire ministries that seem to have no reason for existence at all. This is where Modi needs to begin his spring cleaning on downsizing government.

For example, when you have a ministry of industry, why do you need separate ministries for steel, textiles, chemicals and fertiliser, heavy industries, food processing, small and micro industry, tourism, etc. Are these not part of “industry”? You need one industrial policy that takes care of all kinds of industry - not separate policies for separate industries. (We are already seven ministries too many here)

Similarly, why would one need separate ministries for various kinds of energy: petroleum, coal, power, nuclear, new and renewable energy? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have one omnibus ministry of energy to ensure that all energy policies are coordinated and headed in the same direction? When one kind of energy is substitutable for another, does it make sense to have on policy on gas pricing, another on coal, yet another on solar energy, and yet another on diesel or LPG? (That's four ministries more that are redundant.)

Do we need one ministry of transport, with railways, civil aviation, shipping and roadways under it, or multiple ministries each trying to do their own thing? Does the freight rate charged on railway cargo not impact road transport, or air cargo? When Air Asia says it is targeting the first class rail passenger, how can civil aviation policy be divorced from railway passenger fares policy? (Three more ministries can be wrapped up under transport)

When we have a ministry of law and justice, do we need separate ones to ensure social justice and empowerment, another one for women and children, for minorities, and for tribals? Next, we will have one for people with disabilities. Why does corporate law need a separate ministry? Can’t law and justice do it? Or can’t the industry ministry handle corporate issues? (Five ministries can go out of the window here)

If agriculture is largely a rural activity, why do we need separate ministries for agriculture and rural development? (One more ministry down)

The information and broadcasting ministry can easily be abolished – and Prasar Bharati (which runs Doordarshan and All India Radio) can be a public broadcaster with some degree of autonomy. Given the wide choice of news channels, the slant of government-owned media hardly matters. (One more gone)

And what, on earth, do we need so many tiny ministries about whom we know almost nothing: the ministry of earth sciences, overseas Indians, culture, youth affairs and sports, drinking water, and so on? (Five out of the window)

Quite clearly, ministries have proliferated just to give the surfeit of politicians a job to do – where they can feather their nests, if they want to.

This is not to suggest that sports, or culture, for that matter, are not important – just that they can be done departmentally under a more purposeful ministry. For example, both youth affairs and culture could conceivably come under either HRD or even in a quiet place under PMO. Take women and and child development - issues relating to empowerment and gender justice are really matters for the law ministry; issues relating to maternal and child health are under the ambit of the health ministry.

The only ministries that more or less cannot be abolished are finance, home, agriculture, law and justice, health, HRD, energy, transport, commerce and industry, defence, foreign affairs, and environment. To this I would add an omnibus new Ministry of National Assets, where all the companies and assets owned by the government can be housed and told to improve performance. This will achieve two purposes:

One, a single-minded focus on performance, with the possibility of selling off some of the enterprises that need not remain in the public sector.

Two, freeing the ministries from the conflicts of interest where they make policy and also run companies affected by those policies. If the civil aviation ministry both makes policy and runs Air India, how can we accept a neutral and fair policy ever?

Modi may want to expand his choice of allies once the results are out in order to prove the new touchability of the BJP, and to enhance political stability, but having too many allies will end up having to expand government too. He should be aware of this contradiction between stability and minimum government.

Add up the ministries that can easily be abolished (from my tentative list above) and you will get 26 going the way of T-Rex, and one new one coming in. Twenty-five ministries make no sense even on the basis of a cursory glance from an editorial writer in Firstbiz. Send an expert committee to search for boondoggle ministries and you will find more.

Mr Modi, cutting ministries down the size if the place to begin the good work of minimum government, maximum governance.

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