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Bifurcation of Surface Transport Ministry -- For better or worse?

N. K. Kurup

THE recent Cabinet reshuffle indicates a possible bifurcation of the Surface Transport Ministry into the Ministries of Shipping and Roads and Highways. After being elevated to Cabinet rank, Minister for Law and Justice, Mr Arun Jaitley, was given the additional charge of Shipping. Mr B. C. Khanduri, an aspirant to the chief ministership of Uttaranchal, was appointed Minister for Road Transport and Highways with independent charge. Mr Jaitley will be assisted by Mr Hukum Deo Nara nyan Yadav, who was Minister of State for Surface Transport.

On the face of it, the move appears sensible, aimed at ensuring greater administrative efficiency. With e-commerce gaining momentum, the transport sector has a crucial role to play. The growth of both shipping and road transport depends, to a great exten t, on government policy decisions. Sharing the responsibilities by two or three ministers, it is assumed, will lead to quick decision-making.

A year ago, the Ministry of Surface Transport was split into two divisions -- the Department of Shipping and the Department of Roads and Highways. Both departments were put under the charge of two separate secretaries. The shipping department has u nder its charge ports, shipping, shipbuilding, national waterways and inland waterways. The Department of Roads and Highways is responsible for development of road transport, highways, and transport research. The apparent move to upgr ade these departments to separate ministries can be seen as a logical follow-up.

However, a closer look at related developments reveal the Government's half-hearted approach. Consider the recent reshuffle of senior bureaucrats. Mr R. Vasudevan, Secretary (Shipping), has suddenly been sent to his home state of Maharashtra. Mr M. P. P into, chairman, Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust, who is two years junior to Mr Vasudevan in service, has been appointed secretary (Shipping) in his place. Before being shifted to Delhi, Mr Vasudevan held various senior positions in the Shipping Department, i ncluding that of Director-General of Shipping, Chairman of JNPT and chairman of the Shipping Corporation of India. Mr Vasudevan has the reputation of being an upright officer. The rumour in the shipping circles is that Mr Vasudevan was the victim of a co nspiracy by Delhi politicians and bureaucrats, who saw him as a potential threat with regard to the Cabinet Secretary's post. The best way to eliminate that threat was to post him out of Delhi.

Replacing Mr Vasudevan by Mr Pinto will not significantly change the functioning of the shipping Department. On the other hand, shifting Mr Vasudevan to Maharashtra has created a peculiar situation in the State cadre. Mr Vasudevan is the senior-most IAS officer in the State. The Chief Secretary, Mr Arun Bongirwar, is three years junior to him in service. The State Government has to either replace Mr Bongirwar or find Mr Vasudevan a suitable post.Being constantly shifted from one ministry to another can only make a bureaucrat the jack of all trades and the master of none. An officer needs reasonable time to study the issues in a particular sector and make appropriate policy decisions. If this is not allowed normally, decisions on crucial issues will be delayed. This is also true of ministers. Four ministers had their stints in the Surface Transport Ministry in the past two years.

The bifurcation alone of the ministry may not serve the desired purpose. Crucial issues are to be resolved quickly. Shipping companies are worried about the Exim Policy provision restricting the import of second-hand ships. The Ministry should immediatel y come out with a clear clarification on the issue. After a prolonged recession, the shipping market is looking up. The industry should be supported to take advantage of the favourable wind.

The new shipping secretary, Mr Pinto has a thorough understanding of the subject. He had made several recommendations in his capacity as Chairman of the Shipping Policy Committee. He now has the opportunity to implement them.

Related links:
Uma Bharti back; Jaitley elevated

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