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Ministry mergers on table for trim cabinet

New Delhi, May 23: Bureaucratic circles believe that Narendra Modi is likely to merge several bunches of Union ministries in favour of a slimmer cabinet and streamlined governance.

Officials said many ministries now had overlapping mandates and oversaw various stages of the same work, and that their turf wars led to red tape and bottlenecks and set them working at cross-purposes.

Independent India’s first government in 1947 had just 19 ministries, whose number had grown to 42 by the time the previous NDA government was voted out in 2004. The UPA raised the count to 53 (including two departments).

A bureaucrat said Modi could trim the number to around 38. He said it was the compulsions of coalition politics that had led to a mushrooming of ministries from the 1990s, so that “as many ministers as possible could be accommodated”.

“Modi has no such coalition compulsions,” he said. “In the past, even the cabinet secretariat had raised concerns over Union ministries working at cross purposes with one another.”

The Prime Minister-designate is believed to have asked cabinet secretary Ajit Seth to tell senior government secretaries to prepare a presentation on “How things could have been different” and “What if you are given a free hand?”

A senior mandarin said former civil servants elected MPs on BJP tickets this time were probably advising Modi on the merits of a small cabinet. “There are ministries that are virtually without any work,” he said.

Agriculture, for example, has several related ministries such as the agriculture ministry, chemicals and fertilisers ministry, food processing industries ministry and the ministry of consumer affairs, food and public distribution.

While there’s a water resources ministry, there’s also a ministry for drinking water supply and sanitation.

Sources said the civil aviation and road transport ministries could be brought under an overarching transport ministry. Some officials have even suggested bringing railways under it.

They, however, clarified that each of the merged ministries would remain a separate division within the larger ministry — in a throwback to the 1980s when most of the present-day ministries existed as departments.

With a politician (the minister) in charge of the ministry, the divisions will be headed by officials, giving bureaucrats a larger role in a Modi government.

“Some ministries are white elephants, each having one minister and often junior ministers,” said a bureaucrat who was formerly attached to the coal and mines ministry.

Bureaucrats said that having separate ministries for energy, steel, power and mines affected speed and efficiency because if one ministry granted mining permission, another handled documentation of ownership, and a third the prices for the natural resources.

They said the three ministries in the energy sector — power, renewable energy, and petroleum and natural gas — might be merged with mines and steels and be called the ministry of “works, energy and power”, as it was in 1947.

Coalition politics was one reason why the UPA government had carved out, from the human resource development ministry, the new ministries of women and child development, social justice and empowerment, and minority affairs. These three and the youth affairs ministry — and even possibly the tribal affairs ministry — could now be merged with the social welfare ministry.

Indications are that education, culture, tourism and environment would remain standalone ministries and would be areas of special interest. The new government is likely to create a new ministry too — for river linking.