In December, here is what the government did
At the end of each month, Hindustan Times will bring to its readers an update of the key decisions in government, their significance, and what lies ahead for the ministries concerned.
Here is a snapshot of all that happened in December, in the first instalment of the series:
Ministry of Finance
The big decision: The finance ministry focused on the implementation of the 32 measures it took to stimulate the economy since August 2019 and engaged with various sectors to address issues faced by them. Two most important focus areas have been measures to boost investment and consumption.
Significance: The ministry is seeking to help industry by resolving regulatory bottlenecks so that the September 20 decision of reducing Corporate Tax rates, which was aimed at attracting investments, can be effective.
On the consumption front, the public sector banks’ (PSBs) customer outreach saw investors and retail consumers borrowing a whopping Rs 4,91,834 crore in just two months. In order to incentivise bank officials, the government on December 28 announced a mechanism to protect banks’ executives for their genuine commercial decision.
What next: The Budget is expected to be presented in Parliament on February 1, 2020, amidst concerns of economic slowdown. The Budget is expected to boost consumption by giving more money in the hands of people through relaxations in personal taxation and by enhancing amount of the direct transfer of benefits in the bank accounts of the poor, particularly in the rural areas. It is also expected to bring more regulatory reforms for ease of doing business to boost investments.
Ministry of External Affairs (MEA)
The big decision: India and Iran have agreed on measures to boost the economic viability of Chabahar port after achieving the political objectives behind developing the facility on the Gulf of Oman, including a route to access Afghanistan while bypassing Pakistan.
Significance: India will offer incentives such as higher subsidies to attract more merchant shipping to Chabahar. The waiver offered by the US for the port will help India push the acquisition of equipment such as cranes to improve the efficiency of Chabahar.
What next: The MEA will have to focus on improving ties with Bangladesh, which have been hit in recent months by the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship (Amendment) Act and remarks by top BJP leaders about deporting infiltrators.
Ministry of Defence
The big decision: The government cleared the appointment of India’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) who will be a four-star General and head the new department of military affairs in the defence ministry, four months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in his Independence Day speech the creation of the post for more effective coordination between the three armed forces.
Significance: The appointment of the CDS - pending for almost two decades after the Kargil Review Committee recommended it - is a major reform in India’s higher defence management. While the CDS would act as the principal military adviser to the defence minister on all tri-services matters, the three service chiefs would continue to advise the minister on matters exclusively concerning their respective services.
What next: The new department, under the CDS, will focus on promoting jointness in procurement, training and staffing for the three services through joint planning and integration of their requirements. It will also facilitate the restructuring of military commands for optimal utilisation of resources by bringing about jointness in operations, including through establishment of joint/theatre commands.
Ministry of Home Affairs
The big decision: The ministry shepherded the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Parliament, which provides for expedited citizenship to religious minorities from three neighbouring countries. The government subsequently announced the decision to update the National Population Register (NPR), which is a list of ‘usual residents’ of the country, from April till September, 2020. The Cabinet also approved Rs 3,941 crore for the exercise. Subsequently, Rs 8,754 crore was earmarked for Census 2021.
Significance: The CAA has provoked widespread protests across the country. In the case of NPR, demographic details of every individual are required for every resident on 21 points including date and place of birth of parents, last place of residence, Permanent Account Number (PAN), Aadhaar (on a voluntary basis), voter ID card number, driving license number and mobile number. In the last NPR done in 2010, the data was collected on the 15 points. It didn’t include ‘date and place of birth of parents’ and last place of residence. NPR is different from National Register of Citizens (NRC), which excludes the foreigners. Opposition parties have said that NPR is the first step towards the NRC while the government has claimed they are not linked.
What next: A big challenge lies ahead for the ministry of home affairs in January as the anti-CAA protests refuse to die down and paramilitary forces deployed for law and order duties are overburdened since General elections, nullification of article 370 in Kashmir, elections in several states and recent violence.
Ministry of Agriculture
The big decision: The ministry decided to create a database of all farmers in the country, based on Aadhaar, for a unified and integrated IT-based repository, containing multiple information about a farm household, from financial details to landholdings. Aadhaar-based data generated from key farm-sector programmes such as PM-KISAN and soil health cards will be used.
Significance: Farm subsidies worth thousands of crores - including cheap insurance, fertilisers, credit and cash transfers - still suffer from leakages because very little information about individual farmers is centrally available at the federal level. The database will help direct subsidies better.
What next: Streamlining of major subsidies, both in cash and in-kind handouts like fertilizer to ensure efficient targeting and last-mile delivery.
Ministry of Human Resource Development
Big decision: The go-ahead given by higher education sector regulator University Grants Commission to the concept of on demand examinations is a major step in the direction of evaluation reforms.
Significance: For long, examinations in Indian education system evoke images of nervous youngsters memorising stuff by rote for year end tests which will decide their academic progress. A committee set up under eminent educationist M M Salunkhe surveyed all areas related to evaluation and suggested a number of steps to bring the process to match the needs of the present times. The most prominent of these being exams which would be taken as and when the student is ready. The UGC guidelines on evaluation reforms which were based on the Salunkhe report were released by Union Human Resource Development (HRD) minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank earlier this month.
What next: The guidelines suggest the setting up of a national board that will conduct these exams. However, considering the scale at which college and university exams are held in India, it’s a long road ahead before the required infrastructure is in place. The guidelines say that initially the board can start conducting exams for popular degree programs especially for open distance mode.
Ministry of road transport and highways
The big decision: In a move aimed to reduce bottlenecks at national highways, the Centre mandated that all lanes of national highways toll plazas to be declared as “FASTag lanes” by December 15, 2019. The Centre’s earlier deadline mandating FASTags by December 1 had been postponed to December 15 to provide some more time to citizens to buy and put FASTag on their vehicles.
Significance: FASTags are aimed at reducing bottlenecks at highways. The move aims to reduce wait time at toll plazas and enhance digital payment through NHAI’s electronic toll collection.
What next: The ministry had mandated all lanes but one to remain open for cash collection. In it’s order dated December 14, it relaxed the norms to allow cash payment for at least 25% of the total lanes. Following the initial roll out phase, it will mandate only FASTags across all lanes.
Ministry of railways
The big decision: In a major move to reform the 150-year-old railway board of the Indian Railways, the union Cabinet on Tuesday approved to restructure the apex body of the Indian Railways by trimming its strength to half, and unifying its eight railways services into a central service called the Indian Railway Management Service.
Significance: The reforms are aimed at ending departmentalisation of the mammoth organization that employees nearly 1.3 million people, second only to the strength of the Armed Forces. Unlike railway systems the world over, which have been corporatised, the Indian Railways is managed by the government directly. It is organised into various departments such as traffic, civil, mechanical, electrical, signal & telecom, stores, personnel, and accounts among others. Unification of services is aimed at ending this ‘departmentalism’, promote smooth working of Railways, expedite decision making, create a coherent vision for organisation and promote rational decision making.
What next: The India Railways has an ambitious programme to modernise and provide higher safety standards of safety, speed and services to the passengers with a proposed investment of Rs 50 lakh crore over the next 12 years. This requires speed and scale, and a unified, agile organisation to work single-mindedly on this task and capable of responding to challenges.