Wanted: a makeover for Bengal ministry

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  • Published 19.06.09

Lalgarh has laid bare the inertia in the bureaucracy that looks up to ministers for action. But if Bengal bureaucracy is the yes-minister brigade, what it has in common with its bosses is non-performance.Word of a ministerial shuffle is being heard at Alimuddin Street following the CPM’s election defeat, but it is an open question whether a shake-up is at all possible given the party’s premium on indifferent performance, insiders say At least eight CPM ministers in charge of important portfolios are unable to contribute either because of poor health or simply because they are non-performers. But they stay on for “political” reasons or “other considerations” — competence clearly not one of them.

Nirupam Sen

The second-in-command in chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s cabinet, industries minister Sen is not keeping well, sources said.

The chief minister’s repeated emphasis on industry initiatives is likely to suffer because of Sen’s frequent indisposition but the CPM can’t afford to knock down a politburo member, a department official said.

Commerce and industries is not the only department, Sen looks after. He has in his kitty the public sector enterprises department meant to take care of the loss-making PSUs.

He is also the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation chairman. Although managing director Subrata Gupta looks after daily affairs, Sen is the guiding force.

Besides, Sen is in charge of the planning and development department that examines half-yearly reports on the functioning of different departments.

“It’s anybody’s guess how these departments or corporations work now with the minister’s intermittent attendance,” said an official in the chief minister’s secretariat.

Mrinal Banerjee

Banerjee has two major departments to handle — power and labour. But he is at present incapacitated after a major surgery. Long power cuts have not hurt Banerjee, who wasn’t given the crucial portfolio for his ministerial abilities in the first place. He got the job because the chief minister thinks that as a Citu leader, Banerjee can keep the union at bay.

“Mrinalbabu had been doing his work regularly till the first two months of this year. After that, he became unwell and recently underwent an operation. That’s why he hasn’t been coming to office,” a source said.

He has two offices to attend — Writers’ Buildings where he handles labour and New Secretariat for power — but cannot do justice to either.

After having initially meddled in the affairs of Dunlop, Banerjee had to withdraw for health reasons.

Surjya kanta Mishra

Three portfolios directly dealing with the masses are in Mishra’s lap. He is close to both CPM state secretary Biman Bose and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, and is seen by the chief minister as one who can deliver in government and party. Mishra offered to step down as minister when asked in 2006 if he would like to give up health, a source said.

Yet, the health, rural development and panchayat departments he handles suffer from under- or non-performance, said a retired IAS officer.

A look at state hospitals and primary health centres sums up his role as health minister.

The CPM fared badly in several districts in the gram panchayat and panchayat samiti polls last year and lost four zilla parishads. “Surjyada’s move to bring in legislation that called for dismantling panchayat samitis if they failed to submit utilisation certificates to the state government sent a wrong political message to the rural poor,” said a party leader.

As for rural development, Mishra’s performance can be rated from the implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme in Bengal that assures 100 days of work to the rural poor. The word from critics is the Left government has been able to provide only 22 days of work.

Subhas Chakraborty

At a time unlicensed and unregistered auto-rickshaws are belching poisonous smoke into the city, transport minister Subhas Chakraborty is rarely seen at Writers’ because he is in poor health. He has had to undergo treatment frequently since the middle of last year, a transport department official said.

“Due to failing health, Subhasbabu has remained indoors for the past two-and-a-half months.... His secretarial staff and senior officials now look after his work. It’s difficult to dispense with Chakraborty’s services on health grounds as he is a senior member of the party state secretariat,” said a CPM state committee member.

Goutam Deb

For a long time, Deb has been in charge of the housing and public health engineering departments and stays away from the limelight with his office tucked away in a corner of the New Secretariat. Although not physically unfit, he is said to be suffering from “occasional ailments”, party sources said.

Deb is credited in the party with successfully buying land in Rajarhat from poor farmers at “throwaway rates” in the 1990s. He had made then chief minister Jyoti Basu and Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee hand over the land price cheques to Rajarhat farmers. Because of his Rajarhat experience, Basu asked Deb to attend a meeting with Mamata Banerjee at his Indira Bhavan residence on Singur.“Goutam is a party secretariat member and an important minister. If he suffers from even minor ailments, the departments he looks after will also suffer,” said a CPM central committee member.

Sailen Sarkar

Reluctant from day one to take up a ministerial assignment, Sarkar is originally an organisation man having devoted the better part of his political career to party-building in Malda “against heavy odds”. He had to work for the re-structuring of the Malda CPM when Congress heavyweight A.B.A Ghani Khan Chowdhury was alive.

After Democratic Socialist Party leader Prabodh Sinha lost from Egra in East Midnapore in 2006, Sarkar was made parliamentary affairs minister. In addition, he was given the environment portfolio.

Between 2006 and 2009, Sarkar was indisposed a number of times. “Given that he is aged and ailing, Sailenbabu shouldn’t have been given charge of parliamentary affairs as there’s a lot to do when the Assembly is in session,” an official formerly attached to his secretariat said.

Sarkar hasn’t been attending office for nearly two months.

Susanta Ghosh & Narayan Biswas

Ghosh is from West Midnapore and was the architect of the CPM’s recapture of Keshpur. But the peons and orderlies scurrying up and down the Writers’ corridors hardly ever come across the Paschimanchal Unnayan affairs minister. People died of starvation in West Midnapore’s Amlasole; the tribal movement reared its head in Belpahari and Lalgarh. But the minister-in-charge is nowhere to be seen.

“He hardly comes to Writers’ and prefers to stay in Midnapore. The chief minister also doesn’t discuss any project with him. But he may be at Writers’ next week for about three hours between 1pm and 4pm,” said an official.

Biswas is no different. In charge of the cottage and small-scale industries department, he spends “quality time” in Gangarampur constituency in South Dinajpur. Once a month, he is seen at the state secretariat. Asked whether he was in office today, a Biswas aide said: “Sir is in the district and will be there now. You may contact him next week on his mobile.”

Legacy continues

Today’s CPM leaders appear to have taken a leaf out of their predecessors’ book, sticking to men of their choice regardless of age, health or ability. In the Left Front governments in the seventies and eighties, several ministers were known non-performers because of age and ill-health.

Krishnapada Ghosh was made labour minister when he was ill. Shanti Ghatak was asked to take charge of the same portfolio when he was indisposed and slept away the
better part of the day in his Writers’ chamber. Disregarding old age and illness, Bhabani Mukherjee was made environment minister. An ailing Bhakti Bhusan Mondal joined as co-operation minister, replacing Saral Deb, but stayed away from office for months.
When Bhattacharjee replaced Basu as chief minister in November 2000, Mondal came to the swearing-in in a wheelchair, muttering: “I want to be minister again.”