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Does this look like a government with a 100-day deadline?

May 26, 2009 13:27 IST

Here is the history of the first days of our new Congress-led government.

On Friday, May 22, 2009, Dr Manmohan Singh took the oath of office as the prime minister of India. So did 19 of his colleagues.

On Saturday, May 23, 2009, the prime minister summoned his Cabinet, telling them to get cracking because India could not afford more delays.

On Monday, May 25, 2009, 13 Cabinet ministers sat at home and twiddled their thumbs.

Why? Because the prime minister had omitted to allot their portfolios. A 14th, Railway Minister Mamata Bannerjee, was in Kolkata, apparently continuing her election campaign against her old foes in the Left Front.

That does not sound like a ministry that is all set to revive the ailing Indian economy in a hundred days flat, as Dr Manmohan Singh vowed, does it?

A month ago, when the poll process was still on, the prime minister made the astounding claim that he would revive the economy in just one hundred days if re-elected. As the new government took office on May 22, this means the Manmohan Singh ministry has a self-imposed deadline of August 30 to roll out a coherent programme.

"There is considerable scope to refuel the stimulus packages," the prime minister said back in April, "and our aim is to take the economy back to the stage where 9 per cent to 10 per cent growth is possible."

This seems wildly optimistic. The IMF said India's GDP would grow by 4.5 per cent while the World Bank offered a more conservative prophecy at 4 per cent. Those are still pretty good figures in the midst of a global recession, it is just that they are nowhere near the prime minister's projections.

India can forget about exporting its way out of trouble. As of February, India's exports had declined 22 per cent on a year-to-year basis.

If exports cannot be the engine that pulls the economy out of a slough, what could? All signs point to massive government spending in expenditure. Put aside for a moment the question of how the Manmohan Singh government will pay for everything, and assume that the funds can be raised.

Does the prime minister have the ministers to pull off ambitious infrastructure programmes on the promised scale?

What is the Manmohan Singh ministry's track record over the last five years?

Let us start with the state of India's roads. No less an authority than the Comptroller & Auditor General has pointed to the appalling manner in which projects have been handled. 125 projects have been delayed, and only 56 are on schedule. Seventeen road works were assigned to public-private partnerships, of which only five were completed in time.

The Comptroller & Auditor General's report pointed out that the Government of India would lose an estimated Rs 384 crore due to irregularities.

It gets worse. Not only could the National Highways Authority of India not complete projects on time, it could not even make proper use of those roads that were constructed. A ministerial committee on infrastructure found that more than one-third of the roads had not been put under toll. This meant a loss of about Rs 1,550 crore every year.

These facts can scarcely come as news to the prime minister. The head of that high-powered committee on infrastructure was none other than Dr Manmohan Singh.

Is it unfair to ask why the prime minister did not act to stem the rot, possibly replace his errant road transport & highways minister with someone more efficient? The truth is that while Thalikottai Rajuthevar Baalu might not have been a paragon of efficiency, few of his colleagues had better luck running the infrastructure departments.

Twenty-six telecommunication projects are listed as delayed, not one is on schedule. Thirty-one power projects are off schedule, 30 are on schedule. Twenty-four petroleum projects have been delayed, 19 are on schedule. Airports, railways, shipping and ports, steel -- you name it and there are plenty of laggards to be found everywhere.

There is no point in promising infrastructure projects by the hundred if you do not have ministers capable of running them properly, on time and within budget. This is an area, as even Congressmen admit, where the first Manmohan Singh ministry gave a below par performance.

But where is the hope of better days ahead?

Dr Manmohan Singh does not have the freedom to stuff his ministry with efficient technocrats. In other words, many of the faces from his first ministry shall be back in the Union Cabinet, and I doubt if the few replacements will be much better than their predecessors.

Does anyone think Mamata Bannerjee shall be a better railways minister than Lalu Prasad Yadav?

It will be bad enough if this government piles up debt in the name of building infrastructure. It will be considerably worse if that money is thrown away through inefficiency and worse.

Efficiency begins at the top. What prevented the prime minister from appointing ministers to the crucial infrastructure departments? Yes, the DMK is giving Dr Manmohan Singh a hard time but why should that prevent at least the Congress appointees from beginning work?

If you want to point fingers at ministers that preside over delayed projects, what do you say to a prime minister who is tardy in allocating portfolios?

T V R Shenoy