For those of us who try and understand what different ministries do, life can often be frustrating, since their behaviour does not conform to standard normative expectations. But there is one simple key to deciphering what goes on. Each ministry is designed to achieve the opposite of what its name implies. If you grasp this simple truth, you will be less mystified. As the most profound song written on Indian democracy goes, “yeh duniya oot patanga, kithe hath te kithe tanga”. This is true of our ministries. They operate on an inverted logic, of the kind no subtle dialectician has been able to fathom. One simple test for each new minister is this. Can they, at the end of their tenure, reverse this inverted logic? Here are summary descriptions of what the ministries are like currently.
Ministry of home affairs: This does live up to its name. It is deeply interested in what goes on in your home. It is armed with all the powers to carry out that function. Internal security is another matter altogether.
Ministry of external affairs: This truly is the ministry of external affairs. It is external to the government of India’s objectives. It is also usually, in Sir Humphrey Appleby’s memorable phrase, “a hotbed of cold feet”.
Ministry of environment: Contrary to what newspapers and fitful bursts of activism would lead you to believe, the environment ministry is actually our ministry of industry promotion. It has no real credible plan for the environment.
Ministry of industry: This is our true ministry of the environment. Its objective has been to de-industrialise India and thereby protect the environment.
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Ministry of human resource development: HRD actually stands for “human resource depletion”. Decades of an impeccable record in this area.
Ministry of petroleum and natural gas: Has generally been very slick and full of hot air.
Ministry of power: Always a ministry hostage to power brokers, including other parts of government.
Ministry of labour: Its sole purpose is to ensure that labour in the organised sector does not grow.
Ministry of civil aviation: Single-mindedly makes sure that India-based airlines eventually get grounded, somewhere or the other.
Ministry of railways: This is actually a ministry of protection of the British Raj. The railways are a heritage monument to be protected, so no real modernisation is possible.
Ministry of coal: The ministry is designed to put black soot on the face of every government.
Ministry of corporate affairs: More interested in the affairs of corporations than promoting them.
Ministry of law and justice: It is actually the ministry of court cases. It designs laws in such a way as to maximise their probability of being litigated and causing uncertainty.
Ministry of health affairs: An appendage of the Medical Council of India, which itself has little to do with medicine.
Ministry of defence: The ministry that always fights a two-front war. How to defend bureaucrats from generals on the one hand, and the CAG on the other.
Ministry of commerce: Otherwise known as the ministry for the blocking of the Doha Round.
Ministry of culture: Makes sure that the one thing we do well, cultural creativity, is also politicised by the state. Fortunately has been too feeble to do much damage.
Ministry of the Northeast: If ever there was a ministry designed to convince the people of a particular region that they were not a normal part of India.
Ministry of rural development: Of late, a ministry with a lot of constructive energy. But designed to keep India rural, as much as to help rural India.
Ministry of water resources: Truly spectacular in its achievements. Guided by one simple principle. How fast can we consume as much water as possible and kill as many rivers as possible?
Ministry of personnel, public grievances and pensions: Is often known to lose track even of IAS officers.
Although training is supposedly part of its mandate, it can seldom distinguish between training and junkets. And it has never addressed public grievances.
Ministry of shipping: Make sure that Singapore’s ports remain the preeminent ones for the region.
Ministry of textiles: A true friend of our neighbours. Ensures that we are not even competitive enough to take on Bangladesh in textiles.
Ministry of youth and sports: Its mandate is confused. It is supposed to be a ministry for sportspersons. It is instead a ministry for sports associations, which are neither youthful nor sporting.
Ministry of urban development: Had a giant scheme for the dissemination of Jawaharlal Nehru’s name. All for the good. Whether it can actually build livable cities is another matter.
Ministry of science and technology: The ministry for the bureaucratisation of all science.
Ministry of information and broadcasting: The ministry for controlling information and slowing broadcasting.
Ministry of telecom: Now the ministry of fuzzy numbers and complicated auction theory. Did anyone say 4G and broadband?
Ministry of tribal affairs: More an expression of the marginalisation of tribal people than their empowerment.
Ministry of minority affairs: Underscores the idea that minorities are small things.
Ministry of statistics and programme implementation: Now its job is to ensure how information can be made least useful. Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis would be turning in his grave at the state of India’s statistical service.
Ministry of planning: The plan for this ministry is never clear.
Ministry of social justice and empowerment: So empowered that almost no one cares.
Ministry of parliamentary affairs: Makes sure Parliament does not run.
Ministry of finance: This is the most serious and big one. Always full of gravitas. Only problem: sometimes confuses finance with the economy.
It is hopefully clear now what the core identity of each ministry is. When in doubt, consult this template, and you will find all actions suddenly becoming intelligible. Never accuse the government of a lack of solidity, direction or integrity. Each of its actions can be traced to the secret of its name: a secret hidden in plain sight.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for
‘The Indian Express’