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Bengal govt’s Lal Bahadur shasti* *The Bengali word for punishment
- No berth, bill bother

Calcutta, May 28: Amit Mitra has two reasons to worry — one personal and the other ministerial. As finance and industries minister, Amit Mitra is the undisputed No. 2 in Mamata Banerjee’s cabinet.

But Mamata has unwittingly made another Mitra and another minister the theoretical No. 2s. Sabitri Mitra and Subrata Saha have been made ministers without portfolio — seen as punishment posts in Bengal but once exalted in India.

Lal Bahadur Shastri, who eventually became Prime Minister, had been made a minister without portfolio in Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet in 1964 when the Prime Minister fell ill. The move was taken so that Shastri, the then Union home minister, could look after the Prime Minister’s responsibilities. When Nehru died a few months later, Shastri became Prime Minister.

History apart, economics is also proving a headache. There is confusion over who will meet the myriad expenses that Sabitri Mitra and Subrata Saha are entitled to as ministers. While Sabitri Mitra was stripped of the social welfare department, Saha was moved out of food processing and horticulture. The apparent reason was Trinamul’s failure to win a seat in Murshidabad and Malda, the districts in which the two have political influence.

While the salaries of ministers are disbursed by the home department, all other payments such as medical and telephone bills, car rental, expenses on cooking gas and salaries of confidential assistants and attendants are made by the department of which the minister is in charge. The Amit Mitra-led finance department, however, will have to ensure that budgetary rules are not flouted while paying the other expenses.

But as the two ministers no longer have any department under their charge, officials are wondering who will pay the bills.

“The salary and the daily allowance of a minister are paid by the home (constitution and elections) department. But other expenses are paid by the departments to which the ministers are attached. As these two ministers are not in charge of any department, we don’t know who will reimburse their expenses,” a home department official said.

No state government official could recall another instance when a Bengal minister was without a portfolio. “As there is perhaps no precedent in Bengal, no rule was made to meet expenses other than the salary and the allowance of such ministers. It appears it would take some time to solve the problem,” an official said.

The problem has become critical, officials said, because budgetary rules don’t permit the home department to pay ministerial expenses other than the salary and the daily allowance.

As soon as a notification was issued yesterday stating that Sabitri Mitra and Saha had been retained as ministers without portfolio, senior government officials started preparing the groundwork for a solution. The officials found that the Centre had instances of retaining ministers without portfolio.

“We found that ministers without portfolio report to the Prime Ministers’ Office and all their expenses are shouldered by it. K. Chandrasekhar Rao of the TRS was a minister without portfolio in the UPA I government for a few months and his expenses were reimbursed by the PMO,” an official said.

Officials said such a model was not applicable to Bengal as the chief minister’s office could not be compared with the PMO. “The establishment section of the CMO, which meets non-plan expenditures, is under the home department as the CMO is not a full-fledged department in Bengal,” an official said.

“As there is a home minister — the chief minister herself — the CMO’s establishment section cannot reimburse the expenses of Sabitri Mitra and Saha,” he added.