The question of when will Chief Minister Sarbanda Sonowal filly get around to expand his team of ministers has kept political circles and the media here exercised for months on end. The more pointed question, of course, deals with the BJP tiol leadership’s calculations before it allows the Assam CM to induct new faces, what with alliance partners AGP and BPF pushing their claims. Apart from Sonowal, there are presently eight ministers of cabinet rank and two ministers of state holding independent charge. The existing ministers are doubtless overburdened, holding charge of multiple portfolios. This reduces the time, attention and energy they can devote to each portfolio, which in turn impacts development in critical sectors — it is being argued. But any talk of having the full complement of ministers in Team Sonowal always veers around to how many berths AGP (with 14 MLAs) and BPF (with 12 MLAs) will be able to wrest and thereby prove their clout. The upper limit of the ministry’s size being 19, it is being speculated the BJP with 61 MLAs will play hardball and keep six ministerial berths for itself, which leaves one berth apiece for AGP and BPF. In such heated speculations, the discussion is mostly about who will get what. There is hardly any thought given as to what expertise a minister might be bringing to a department. More importantly, we all need to appraise which department is doing what for the people’s welfare.
Cutting out flab
Take, for instance, the Animal Husbandry and Veteriry department. Surely this is one department that can do much in raising rural income in an agrarian State like Assam, where there is significant scope to take excess labour off the fields and harness them profitably in poultry and animal farms, dairies, fisheries and the like. In comparison to capital intensive industries, animal husbandry offers good opportunity to put money fast into the hands of relatively unskilled labour. Instead, what do we see in Assam, with high market demand for meat, eggs and milk round the year? The Animal Husbandry and Veteriry department is nowhere on the scene, with half of its 22 poultry farms in the State closed down for good and the other half gasping for survival. The poultry farm at Joysagar is learnt to have just 175 ducks presently, the one at Hajo only 250 ducks. Any visit to a rural market in these two places will likely show much higher numbers of poultry birds being bought and sold in a day. So, should this department then be more of a facilitator than a revenue earner, by helping impart skills and knowhow to unemployed youths? That is hardly likely, with little scope for training being conducted by the department’s struggling farms. This is the sorry tale of just one department — there are others like the one dealing with Assam Accord implementation, where so little meaningful work has been done for decades altogether, that officials consider a posting there as punishment.
It is high time to take a call on such departments, whether these deserve to continue in present form or be given a stern mandate. There is also a strong case for restructuring or merging of several departments. Mercifully, such an exercise has begun in Dispur, with a reported move to streamline and merge some 11 of the 54 State government departments. Whether in terms of cost-cutting and synergy, or plain common sense — it would be better if Soil Conservation and Irrigation as line departments are amalgamated with Agriculture department. Similarly, Welfare of Plain Tribes and Backward Classes can be merged with Social Welfare, Health with Public Health Engineering and Fince with Transformation & Development departments. Back in 2005, the Assam Administrative Reforms Commission headed by Jatindra th Hazarika, among its many recommendations for good governce, had called for organizatiol and job charts by departments and agencies to help address the ‘lack of clarity’ in their functions. It had also focused on the need for zero-based functiol audits, public expenditure tracking surveys and websites to provide updated information by the departments. That report was consigned to gather dust, as political leaders jostled for portfolios and bureaucrats fought to protect their turf. Presently, ‘right sizing’ the government has become a buzzword at the Centre, with the NDA government brainstorming over merging ministries and departments, converging welfare schemes and streamlining institutions. The essence is to cut out flab and needless expense, ensure a nimble administration, and seek holistic solutions rather than suffer piece-meal implementation at cross purposes. It will be in the fitness of things if the present ruling dispensation in Dispur takes the cue of the Prime Minister’s “minimum government, maximum governce” initiative.