New Delhi: While union minister for shipping and road transport T.R. Baalu could yet be asked to resign over seeking favours for his son, his controversial actions in his ministry are now under the spotlight.
At issue is Baalu’s attempt to change the work profiles of top board officials at the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) without consulting its chairman, N. Gokulram.
With Gokulram writing to the ministry saying such changes can’t be made without consulting him, the order, issued by the road transport ministry on 1 April, has been kept in abeyance. NHAI officials, who didn’t want to be identified, say that the order was issued by the ministry at Baalu’s behest.
Gokulram refused to comment on the issue despite repeated calls. The minister, under intense political fire for having sought favours from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) for two companies owned by his son, couldn’t be reached for comment and his office said he was busy with a meeting in Chennai and would not be available for comment.
Meanwhile, speculation is abuzz in the shipping and road transport ministry that Baalu would soon be replaced by Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) chief M. Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi who is a member of Parliament.
People in close contact with the minister’s office say that the PMO has contacted Karunanidhi, suggesting that Baalu step down as minister. But, in a statement to a television channel on Friday afternoon, Baalu denied that he was going to resign.
The order issued by the ministry says NHAI member (administration) K.S. Money has been given additional charge of public-private partnerships (PPP) and that the other three members would have no role to play in such projects. Ironically, all highway projects planned by NHAI now are in the PPP mode and, therefore, other members of the board fear this would sideline them.
It is unclear why Baalu or the ministry would prefer Money over the other board members and why Gokulram wasn’t consulted. The order also says that one of the members of the board, A.V. Sinha, would act as “repository of technical knowledge”.
“What do they mean by this?,” counters one of the senior officers at NHAI. “What work can a member of the board do when neither policy matters nor implementation of projects would come to him?”
Another officer familiar with the development claims the ministry wanted to ensure that the post of the member in charge of PPP remains earmarked for Indian Administrative Service officers. “They want to ensure that officers from the engineering service are removed from the board so that they can appoint their own man,” he claimed.
The secretary of the road transport ministry maintains that the changes being proposed were in line with an earlier Cabinet decision to restructure the authority’s board.
NHAI oversees the national highway development programme under which almost 33,097km of highways were to be four-laned. About 50% of work under the programme has been awarded so far. Baalu has had run-ins with NHAI as he is seen as responsible for changing two of its chairmen within two years.
The disputes between NHAI and the ministry is the latest in a series of problems for the road regulator.
Mint had reported that a board shake-up was imminent with one NHAI member, C. Kandasamy, being repatriated to his parent ministry. The organization has faced criticism over what some contractors and ministry officials call non-performance.