Expect no lean govt

The lateral induction of nine professionals into government service in different central ministries is to be welcomed. But it also underlines how much more remains to be done to reform the country’s governance structure. The fact is that despite promises of minimum government and maximum governance, there is little that the government in the past few years can claim by way of reducing the size of the government or introducing civil services reforms. 

Thus, it will be instructive to take a quick look at what the 2019 election manifestos of two national political parties have promised in this area. Not surprisingly, both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress have once again reiterated the need for streamlining the government size to make it leaner and more effective. 

The BJP manifesto has promised merger of similar and complementary departments into sectoral ministries with the objective of ensuring better implementation of policies and coordination. This will allow policy makers to frame holistic and comprehensive policies on the one hand and ensure smooth implementation on the other, the manifesto states. While reiterating the guiding principle of “minimum government and maximum governance”, the BJP also promises to introduce reforms in civil services. 

The Congress manifesto, too, commits the party to reducing the size of ministries and departments in the Union government in such areas where sufficient capacity has been built by the state governments. Going beyond these similarities with the BJP manifesto, the Congress promises to give primacy to state governments in subjects such as school education, primary and secondary health care, child nutrition, drinking water, sanitation and distribution of electricity and ensure that the central government plays a supportive role to state governments. 

Yet, the irony is that both the manifestos have at the same time promised the creation of a new ministry each. 

The BJP has promised the formation of a new ministry of water, which is expected to unify the water management functions to approach the issue of water management holistically and ensure better coordination of efforts. It does not explain what the role of the existing water resources ministry will be and whether its functions would be taken over by the new ministry. What, however, is clear from the manifesto is that the new ministry will expeditiously take forward the Vajpayee government’s programme for linking rivers from different parts of the country and ensuring a solution to the problems of drinking water and irrigation. Not just a new ministry, the BJP also promises to initiate work on this programme by constituting a new authority.

The Congress, on the other hand, has vowed it would establish a separate ministry for fisheries and welfare of people engaged in fisheries. It will constitute a National Fisherfolk Commission to promote fishing and the welfare of people engaged in fisheries, so that their indebtedness and funding needs are adequately met. What will this mean for the existing fisheries department within the ministry of agriculture and farmers welfare? It seems that the number of the ministries, instead of coming down, will actually increase. 

Another common feature of the manifestos of the BJP and the Congress is their promise of formulating a Model Police Act. Both the parties want to formulate this law in consultation with the states. The BJP hopes that the Model Police Act will help create a “pro-people and citizen-friendly” police, while the Congress believes that this proposal will help make the police forces “modern, technology-enabled, people-friendly and upholders of human rights and legal rights.” 

Both the manifestos also talk about the need for using a mechanism like the GST Council for undertaking developments in new areas in consultation with states — a promise that is made to uphold their commitment to federalism. The BJP promises to pursue the GST Council principle in other areas by ensuring greater involvement of the states in various aspects of policy making and government. The Congress promises to take forward the idea of the GST council of ministers and establish councils for agriculture, education and healthcare. 

The similarities end here. The Congress has committed to scrapping the NITI Aayog and bringing in its place a rejuvenated and a leaner Planning Commission, whose manpower strength would not exceed 100. The Congress also wants to set up many more new bodies — six new Courts of Appeal to hear appeals from judgments and orders of high courts, a new adequately capitalised Tourism Development Bank to provide funds for tourism, a Commission on Marginal Farmers and Agricultural Labour and a permanent National Commission on Agricultural Development and Planning consisting of farmers, farm scientists and economists to recommend ways to make agriculture viable, competitive and remunerative. 

In short, there are many similarities in the promises made by the BJP and the Congress. But whichever political party leads the next government, there is no hope of a leaner government. The promise of a reduced size of the government may well remain on paper.

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