Poorly equipped ministers

Poorly equipped ministers
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First Published: Sun, May 30 2010. 09 20 PM IST
Updated: Sun, May 30 2010. 09 20 PM IST
There has been much heartburn over the poor performance of ministers that leads to inefficiency. This often translates into rage when lack of leadership on their part leads to loss of human life. Two ministers, Mamata Banerjee and Praful Patel, are especially suspect in this respect.
The faults are more egregious in Banerjee’s case. The minister is busy handling political issues in her home state, West Bengal. She is seldom found in Delhi these days and has moved her base to Kolkata and has brazenly defended the move saying that Kolkata is her home. Now her supporters can argue that day-to-day running of her ministry does not require her presence in the Capital and that railway officers are competent to do that work.
In that case, why have a minister in the first place? In any democracy, political oversight of civil servants is key to the health of the polity. That linkage is badly distorted in India. In the railway ministry, for example, ministers are more interested in disbursing patronage in the form of jobs and projects to their home states. Low voltage (read: low political impact) areas such as track safety, security and financial health seldom attract sustained ministerial attention. Intervention assumes a wrong direction.
The reason for this is simple. In technical terms, the ability and competence of our ministers is doubtful. There is an army of advisers and officers to give them a menu of choices, but that is no substitute for first hand acquisition of knowledge. Prior training at the level of minister of state can help overcome this problem, but that position is so devalued in our system that appointees often bide their time to get better cabinet positions and do not make any effort to acquire anything worthwhile during that time.
Here (to be fair to ministers) one must mention the shortcomings of our democracy that cause this. In their five-year tenure, ministers have conflicting demands made on them. At one level they are to head their department and ensure its smoothing functioning. On another level, they have to ensure their political survival. These lead to grave conflicts of interest. One task is often neglected at the cost of the other. The Mangalore and Sardiha disasters have a direct link with this problem.
Does the lack of knowledge handicap ministers? Tell us at views@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, May 30 2010. 09 20 PM IST