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How Modi govt’s March policies set up the road ahead

A look at 10 Union ministries and their policies during the month of March, and what this means for the government moving forward.

india Updated: Mar 31, 2018 12:18 IST

Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived for a BJP Parliamentary party meet at Parliament library in New Delhi, on March 13, 2018.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived for a BJP Parliamentary party meet at Parliament library in New Delhi, on March 13, 2018. (Arvind Yadav/HT File Photo)

At the end of each month, HT will present a government dashboard — tracking key policy decisions or issues in ministries; their significance; and what to expect over the following weeks.

From major defence policy announcements to recalibration of ties with China, from awarding autonomy to universities to grappling with judicial order on atrocities against SCs and STs, from changing labour laws to fixing minimum support prices, March was a busy month for ministers and bureaucrats.

Here is a snapshot of developments in 10 ministries:

Ministry of external affairs
Minister: Sushma Swaraj
BIG ISSUE: India and China are seeking to improve bilateral ties. This month, commerce and industries minister Suresh Prabhu and his Chinese counterpart Zhong Shan co-chaired the 11th meeting of India-China Joint Group on Economic Relations, Trade, Science and Technology. There was also a bilateral meeting in Beijing on trans-border rivers that concluded on March 29. After the meet, China agreed to resume sharing of hydrological data on the Brahmaputra.

SIGNIFICANCE: Both meetings dealt with critical issues. The growing trade deficit with China is a cause of concern for India. India had a $51.1-billion trade deficit with China in 2016-17. China halting sharing of water flow data on the Brahmaputra was an outcome of the Doklam military standoff.

WHAT NEXT: External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman are expected to visit China in April. PM Modi will head to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meet, where India will play a greater role.
Jayanth Jacob
Ministry of defence
Minister: Nirmala Sitharaman
BIG ISSUE: The defence ministry released draft defence production policy visualising India as one of the top five countries in the aerospace and defence sectors, with defence goods and services accounting for a turnover of Rs 1.7 lakh crore by 2025. It said that achieving the goal would require an investment of Rs 70,000 crore and would generate up to three million jobs. Another goal set out in the policy is to clock exports worth Rs 35,000 crore by 2025.

SIGNIFICANCE: The policy is significant as India has been the world’s largest weapons importer for a decade. The draft policy seeks to cut down by 2025 the dependence on imported military hardware such as fighter jets, helicopters, warships, combat vehicles, missiles, small arms and ammunition. India spent more than $100 billion on buying new weapons and systems during 2008-17.

WHAT NEXT: The ministry is organising DefExpo-2018, biennial military systems exhibition, in Chennai.

Rahul Singh
Ministry of home affairs
Minister: Rajnath Singh
BIG ISSUE: March proved to be lethal for paramilitary forces battling left-wing insurgency. While an offensive was launched by the Central Reserve Police Force across Jharkhand in February, resulting in the death of almost 30 Maoists, an improvised explosive device blast in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar claimed lives of nine paramilitary troopers in March.

SIGNIFICANCE: The incident laid bare the vulnerability of CRPF troopers posted deep in Maoist strongholds. Though a commandant was transferred out of Sukma for ignoring intelligence inputs, the incident raised questions on issues such as the quality of equipment, pace of road construction in Maoist areas and overall government strategy.

WHAT NEXT: The home ministry will also face a challenge in Kashmir, where the advent of summer leads to infiltration attempts by militants. While security agencies say the summer will be smooth, there has been an increase in attacks by fidayeen squads and increasing tensions over the past month.
Azaan Javaid
Ministry of information and broadcasting
Minister: Smriti Irani
BIG ISSUE: After a delay of several months, the information and broadcasting ministry and public broadcaster Prasar Bharati signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU), which paved the way for the release of funds to pay salaries to employees of the broadcaster.

SIGNIFICANCE: The ministry pays salaries of all permanent employees who were on the rolls before 2007. Prasar bharati was carved out as an autonomous entity under the ministry in 1997. As per the rules, autonomous organisations receiving grant-in-aid must sign an MoU with the ministry.

WHAT NEXT: What concerns many in Prasar Bharati is the ministry’s insistence on asking the broadcaster to foot the expenses incurred on salaries of those engaged on a contractual basis after 2007. The board has submitted that it is facing a huge revenue deficit and paying salaries to contractual employees will add to its financial crisis and lead to job cuts.

Smriti Kak Ramachandran
Ministry of agriculture
Minister: Radha Mohan Singh
BIG ISSUE: The NITI Aayog and farm ministry held consultations to ensure farmers get minimum support prices (MSPs) for 24 crops that will be at least 50% more than the costs of production.

SIGNIFICANCE: Farmers are protesting poor returns and meagre incomes. The response to growing dissent in the countryside was a budget announcement ensuring MSPs are 1.5 times the cost incurred by farmers. While farmers are demanding that the government use a wider measure called C2, which includes an ‘assumed cost’ of land and machinery, the government said it will continue calculating cost on an existing formula which covers all expenses of a farmer.

WHAT NEXT: The government will take a call on one of two models in April. The first is the market assurance scheme, under which states can procure produce directly from the farmers at MSP. The second is the "price-deficiency" scheme. If the sale price is below the "modal" price — a kind of average price — then farmers are paid the difference between MSP and the actual price.
Zia Haq
Ministry of water resources
Minister: Nitin Gadkari
BIG ISSUE: The thorniest issue for the ministry in March was the Cauvery water dispute. With a six-week deadline for implementation of the February 16 Supreme Court order expiring, the ministry prepared to file a clarification petition asking the court for elaboration on the mechanism for distribution of water in the four Cauvery basin states.

SIGNIFICANCE: The decision of the court will impact how soon distribution of water between the three states — Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala — and the Union territory of Puducherry can begin. The decision is also likely to impact the Karnataka assembly elections on May 12. The Siddaramiah government has gained in the process as people feel their case was well represented in the court.

WHAT NEXT: The court’s judgment in April will shape the direction of work of the ministry over the next month.

Toufiq Rashid
Ministry of human resource development
Minister: Prakash Javadekar
BIG ISSUE: The government decided to grant greater autonomy to better performing institutes to ensure they are relatively free of regulation. It also introduced the concept of graded autonomy, wherein autonomy is granted based on performance of universities.

SIGNIFICANCE: Institutes such as the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the University of Hyderabad and others have been selected. They will not have to approach the University Grants Commission for taking decisions such as starting new centres, departments and changing syllabus. The move was criticised by a section as it gives universities the option to hire foreign faculty, and to start self-financing courses, which many felt would lead to a fee hike. Experts also felt this will reduce the level of accountability.

WHAT NEXT: A government-appointed committee is likely to submit the draft report of the National Education Policy. This is a major policy document that will set priorities.
Neelam Pandey
Ministry of social justice and empowerment
Minister: Thaawarchand Gehlot
BIG ISSUE: A recent Supreme Court judgment that barred automatic arrests and registration of criminal cases under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989 set off concerns it would hamper delivery of justice.

SIGNIFICANCE: Apart from anticipating an adverse electoral impact from the judgment, MPs from the ruling National Democratic Alliance cautioned that watering down the provisions of the law would exacerbate the pendency of cases filed under it. As on date, most states are yet to set up special courts to hear cases filed under the Act. High pendency and low conviction rates are other issues that have been flagged periodically.

WHAT NEXT: After getting a nod from the law ministry, the social justice and empowerment ministry will file a review petition against the Supreme Court order, which was seen to dilute the provisions of the Act.

Smriti Kak Ramachandran
Ministry of law and justice
Minister: Ravi Shankar Prasad
BIG ISSUE: On March 8, the Union cabinet cleared amendments to the existing Arbitration and Conciliation Act that, once effective, will create a legal framework for making India a hub of both domestic and international arbitration.

SIGNIFICANCE: This bill, along with the New Delhi International Arbitration Centre (pending in Parliament since January 5), will reduce the burden on the judiciary by making arbitration the first choice for settling commercial disputes and make India a more acceptable business destination. The average time taken for a commercial dispute to get resolved in the country is 1,445 days.

WHAT NEXT: Though the bill is ready, it has been stuck due to a logjam in Parliament. If it is not taken up by either House before the end of the budget session on April 6, legal reforms needed to better India’s doing business rankings will suffer.

Jatin Gandhi
Ministry of labour and employment
Minister: Santosh Kumar Gangwar
BIG ISSUE: The government this month amended a key rule to allow fixed-term or contractual employment in all industrial sectors, a provision that until had now applied only to apparel manufacturing. It was first proposed in the Union budget speech on February 1.

SIGNIFICANCE: With this, the government has finally put in place a hire-and-fire policy on the factory floor by doing away with existing retrenchment norms that apply to workers. The amendment is to serve the government’s overall aim of amending labour laws to improve the ease of doing business in India.

WHAT NEXT: Policy implementation will be key. Labour unions are opposed to the move. They say substitution of permanent and regular employment with contractual, fixed-term employment is no solution. The government says fixed-term workers, however, would still be entitled to benefits given to permanent workers. The change will come in handy for specific time-barred investments that require casual workers.

Zia Haq

First Published: Mar 31, 2018 12:14 IST

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