In the time of polls, governance in New Delhi has almost come to a halt. While most Secretaries of key ministries and departments are busy preparing their agenda for the new government — as required by Cabinet Secretary Ajit Seth — others are simply passing on all key financial and administrative decisions to the Election Commission.
So much so that last week, the EC wrote to the Cabinet Secretariat informing that “routine matters’’, even if related to mid-level postings and appointments, could be decided without being referred to the poll panel. Since March 5, when the code of conduct came into force, the EC has received a pile of requests from ministries on a daily basis.
Evidence of the paralysis in decision-making was first noticed on Raisina Hill with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself rarely attending his office in South Block. PMO officials said while Singh has not worked out of his South Block office since the end of the Parliament session, he paid a brief visit there last week.
Activity in the PMO has also slowed down as ministries are routing fewer files. Officials said that from the earlier average of around 300 files being routed to the PM for approvals and signature every month, the number is now down to 100-150 files.
At the PM’s Race Course Road residence too, there is clear indication of an imminent change of guard. Singh is known to have spent almost two hours at the Holi dinner party he hosted for PMO staff and their families. Currently, his staff at 7 RCR are busy drawing up an inventory of all furniture, paintings, objects d’art and books displayed there, which will be handed over to members of the new prime ministerial staff.
A separate inventory is being prepared for the hundreds of gifts and mementos Singh received during his 10-year stint. These will be gifted to schools and charitable institutions, since it was felt that they would be carefully cataloged and displayed in these institutions. Meanwhile, the CPWD is drawing up plans for purchase and refurbishment of furniture within the stipulated budget of Rs 2.5 lakh for Singh’s new residence at 3 Motilal Nehru Place, earlier occupied by Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit.
Elsewhere in Delhi’s ministerial corridors, caution in decision-making and signing on files seems to be the buzzword. In Shastri Bhawan, for instance, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting even sought the EC’s permission for its Secretary to attend a FICCI programme and its minister Manish Tewari to attend the National Community Radio Sammelan. While the EC gave its nod to the Secretary, it denied permission to Tewari.
Other important policy initiatives such as phase 3 and phase 4 of digitalisation of cable network, and recommendation of foreign investment in broadcasting sector remain pending. The EC also recently refused permission to the I&B ministry to appoint members of the Film Certification Appellant Tribunal and to fill vacancies in the Central Board of Film Certification. The Ministry is now proposing to route to the EC crucial appointments of the chairman and two members of the Prasar Bharti Board.
“It is different this time. No officials want to take an important decision in the pre-election season since they do not want to answer to CAG and CBI after retirement,” said a Secretary of a key infrastructure ministry.
The EC too is being careful in giving its nod to the proposals it receives from bureaucrats. It declined to clear the commerce ministry’s proposal for the meeting of the Board of Approval (BoA) for Special Economic Zone (SEZ). However, a conditional approval was given with the rider that no land allotment related decision would be taken.
“Some of the issues to be discussed at the BoA are very basic. But with the initial hesitation of EC, be assured that nobody will sign anything that even an undersecretary in the ministry, let alone a committee of secretaries, could decide,” said an official.
The Department of Industry Policy and Promotion (DIPP), which clears FDI proposals, has as many as 14 cases pending, said sources. With the present additional secretary likely to be posted to Geneva, sources said the proposals will be kept on hold till June.
While some appointments are taking place, key postings including Director of Enforcement Directorate, Director General of Border Security Force, Special Secretary (Internal Security), Director General of Foreign Trade are awaiting the PMO’s approval.
The story is the same in the commissions that enjoy independence from the government too. For instance, the finance commission, which is required to submit its report in October, has stalled the process as it is yet to a visit a few states.
In contrast, in the beginning of March, a sudden sense of urgency prevailed in the bureaucracy to send a long list of proposals to the Cabinet. In the fortnight leading up to March 5, when the EC announced the poll schedule, 70 proposals were sent to the Cabinet.
On March 4, the environment ministry issued an official memorandum, sketchy in detail but reiterating that it had approved the draft notification on ecologically sensitive areas in Western Ghats, based on the recommendation of Kasturirangan report. It also said it had agreed with the views of Kerala, where the ruling Congress coalition is pushing for major exemptions, which will have a direct bearing on a dozen constituencies.
For the next 12 days, the file travelled between the environment ministry, law ministry and the EC, before it got notified on March 18. The file trail reveals that the law ministry’s legislative wing sought the EC’s approval for the smallest of changes. Meanwhile, nearly 256 files are awaiting NOCs for various projects.
A senior law ministry official said that since the code of conduct was announced, several ministries are routing files to the ministry. With Law Minister Kapil Sibal busy with his campaign, it is left to the ministry’s bureaucrats to clear the files.