Rush hour for cabinet as election code looms

The cabinet is expected to clear a flurry of proposals before the announcement. (Photo: Reuters)
The cabinet is expected to clear a flurry of proposals before the announcement. (Photo: Reuters)

Summary

  • Cabinet to clear several proposals before election code kicks in

New Delhi: Central ministries are racing to finalize Cabinet notes for key projects under their remit, before the impending announcement of national polls ties the government's hands in making key announcements.

The Election Commission is expected to announce elections to the Lok Sabha shortly, bringing in the model code of conduct that prevents the government from making announcements that may influence voting. The cabinet is expected to clear a flurry of proposals before the announcement, multiple people aware of the matter said.

Digitization of civic services in municipalities, a new interest subsidy scheme for urban housing for the poor and the middle class announced in the budget, a 43,700 crore trans-shipment terminal at Great Nicobar island, and digitally connecting agencies in the debt resolution ecosystem are among key proposals awaiting cabinet nod.

Major decisions are expected in the areas of infrastructure and public service. The proposal for the International Container Transshipment Terminal in Great Nicobar island that the Cabinet will consider is under the public-private partnership model, said one of the persons quoted above. The aim is to get this project off the ground and invite bids in the first quarter of the next fiscal year after the cabinet approval, the person said.

The project has already received in-principle approval from the finance ministry and funding clearance from the ministry's public investment board (PIB). Shipping and ports minister Sarbananda Sonowal told Mint in September that close to 10 domestic and global players have responded to the expression of interest sought for the mega project.

The cabinet is also likely to consider a proposal from the coal ministry to set up a coal trading exchange with Coal Controller Organisation attached to the ministry as the regulator. The plan is to launch the platform early so that trading can start from next fiscal, a second person said.

The road ministry's Vision 2047 plan, under which over 50,000 km of access-controlled expressways would be built over next decade, is also likely to come up before the cabinet. Cabinet approval is needed for the annual construction projects to be planned under the vision, a third person said.

Experts pointed out that decision-making invariably slows down once the code of conduct kicks in. “The government of the day will not be in a position to announce new projects or even make major appointments once the code of conduct is in place. That is meant to ensure a level playing field and to avoid the party in office getting an unfair edge," said Ruby Singh Ahuja, senior partner at law firm Karanjawala & Co.

A new housing scheme for the urban poor and middle class living in rented houses, slums or unauthorized colonies--a key welfare scheme first announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his independence day speech last year and made it to the Union budget for FY25 earlier this month, is also awaiting cabinet nod.

Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman told Mint after the budget that the new scheme would be different from the ongoing urban housing scheme, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (Urban) which ends in December this year. The new programme would effectively be an interest subvention scheme wherein home buyers would get loans at lower interest rates. The new scheme is in line with the government’s ‘Housing for All’ mission.

Once the election code takes effect, the government retains the power to carry out routine governance and administrative functions but is generally restricted from making any new major policy announcements or decisions that could influence voter behavior.

This includes launching new projects, schemes, or any financial grants that could be seen as swaying the electorate in favour of the incumbent government, explained Nilesh Tribhuvann, managing partner of White & Brief - Advocates & Solicitors.

“In summary, while the government of the day continues to function and make decisions, the nature of these decisions is constrained by the need to maintain electoral integrity and fairness," said Tribhuvann.

The cabinet also needs to approve a scheme giving central support to states for offering online payment of property tax, water, electricity and other utility bills. The finance ministry has already set aside 1,450 crore for the scheme in the interim budget for FY25. With the allocation in the budget, a post-facto approval to the scheme is expected shortly, a fourth person said.

The National Urban Digital Mission was launched in 2021, with an aim to build a shared digital infrastructure to strengthen the capacity of the urban civic ecosystem. So far, it has been promoting digitization of civic services, but without any fiscal support from the Centre towards states. Now, this gap is being addressed.

The animal husbandry and dairying department is now preparing a scheme tentatively named the Rashtriya Pashudhan Vikas Yojana (RPVY) to support the veterinary system for the cabinet to consider, said a fifth person. Mint reported on 26 January that this scheme is expected to be on the lines of the agriculture ministry’s Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY).

The government is also working on a plan to build a common information technology (IT) backbone linking various stakeholders of the corporate turnaround ecosystem to improve the efficacy of debt resolution. Mint had reported on 16 January that once built, this platform will help in better case management under the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code.

Emails sent on Thursday to the ministries of shipping, coal, road transport and highways, urban affairs, corporate affairs and animal husbandry and dairying ministries seeking comments for the story remained unanswered at the time of publishing.

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