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Quiet first day in office for Swaraj

New Delhi, Jan. 31: The flutter at Nirman Bhavan, which houses the health and family welfare ministry, was low this afternoon when the new minister, Sushma Swaraj, took charge compared to the noisy scenes witnessed seven months ago. Bollywood filmstar Shatrughan Sinha had then attracted huge crowds.

Yesterday, his staff made a quiet exit rued by few in the ministry. But Swaraj had a kind word to say for her colleague who could never really come to grips with the demands of the crucial ministry. “It is not true to say that Sinha was more absent than present in Parliament,” she said. “I used to share my question day with him in Parliament. And, barring a couple of times, he was always there. Anybody can be absent once or twice from the House,” said Swaraj.

Sinha had spent lakhs renovating his office. Would Swaraj add her distinctive touch, asked the media. “Why should I spend any money renovating the room when my predecessor has already spent so much on it '” quipped the minister.

She refused to answer whether her new portfolio signified a promotion or demotion. “It is the Prime Minister’s prerogative to designate portfolios. We should not question it,” Swaraj said.

In less than a year, the health and family welfare ministry has seen three ministers. C.P. Thakur, dropped from the Cabinet in August, was succeeded by Sinha, who has been replaced by former information and broadcasting minister Swaraj. Sinha’s short tenure was marked by disaffection among bureaucrats, who found the minister lacking in seriousness and too engrossed in activities outside the ministry.

“Our aim will be to make India a secure and healthy nation,” said Swaraj while taking charge today. “No nation can be secure if its citizens are not in the best of health. Education and health are the two basic responsibilities of any government,” she stressed.

When Sinha took charge he had promised to ensure cheap health services for the majority. Swaraj said the same. “The health department is linked to the masses. We should make available to the people basic health facilities at reasonable cost.”

Asked if she would reconsider her decision, taken as information and broadcasting minister, to pull down advertisements on condom promotion from Doordarshan, she said: “I have not banned advertisements promoting condoms. There should be a campaign for raising awareness about AIDS. But the campaign should focus on the routes, other than sex, which are responsible for spreading HIV and AIDS.”

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