Nitin Gadkari may get Railways too: Why cabinet reshuffle should create an omnibus transport ministry

New Delhi: Suresh Prabhu will likely be moved out of Railways after a series of accidents, at least one of them deadly, compelled him to offer his resignation to the Prime Minister late last month.

According to several news reports, his Cabinet colleague Nitin Gadkari may be given additional charge of Railways in the impending Cabinet reshuffle, which is expected over the weekend. Several other ministers are also set to either lose their current berths or get new responsibilities but the significant addition in Gadkari’s portfolio is worth analyzing. If the intention is to merely allot Gadkari a ministry which houses the world’s largest employer and transporter without Prime Minister Narendra Modi creating an omnibus ministry for transport, it would be a pity.

Not only will failure to create such an omnibus transport ministry show the PM in poor light given his oft-repeated promises of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’, it will also once again show a painful lack of effort to find integrated solutions to India’s transport and infrastructure woes. Ideally, India should now move to a single body devising polices for road, rail, sea and air transport in all forms instead of the present piecemeal approach. Now is as good a time as any to usher in this reform.

 Nitin Gadkari may get Railways too: Why cabinet reshuffle should create an omnibus transport ministry

File image of Nitin Gadkari. PTI

A Business Standard report quotes sources who say that the hallmark of the Cabinet reshuffle could be the PM revisiting his promise of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’, with some of the ministries likely to be merged. This would also help the PM solve the challenge of talent crunch in the BJP ranks. Currently, the Modi council of ministers has 72 members. “With Air India sale on the anvil, some in the government are of the view that an omnibus transport ministry should be set up. In 1985, Rajiv Gandhi had created an omnibus transport ministry under Haryana leader Bansi Lal, with a minister of state for each of the sectors. Modi could appoint an MoS each for roads, shipping, railways, waterways, highways and aviation,” the report says.

The article goes on to speculate also about a similar omnibus ministry in the energy sector. “With union minister for oil and natural gas Dharmendra Pradhan slated to play a bigger role in Odisha, where assembly polls are due simultaneously with 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the PM could go in for merging all energy-related sectors into another omnibus ministry. An MoS each could be entrusted with handling coal, power, non-conventional energy resources and petroleum products.,” it said.

But several sources aware about developments in the transport ministry which Gadkari currently heads (roads, highways, ports and shipping are his domain already) said there was no such buzz of any omnibus ministry being created. No one in the Ministry of Civil Aviation – which should also be included in the omnibus transport ministry – either has spoken of such an integrated policy making any initiative till now.

But there is every sense in having a single ministry dealing with all transport issues. Former Secretary in Gadkari’s ministry, Vijay Chhibber, said creation of an omnibus ministry of transport would be a good idea, adding that several other geographies including the United States have a single department catering to all forms of transport and such a ministry would certainly mean better synergy in policy making. “An omnibus ministry would lead to better planning; airports being built in isolation without synergy with roaods and railways is not a good idea. Besides, an integrated approach to policy making for the transport sector would also harmonise procurement policies,” Chhibber said.

Not just better procurement, an omnibus ministry would also ensure a multi-modal transport policy. Take for example, the simple fact that the railways has been losing market share in goods carriage due to cross subsidization of passenger fares, by keeping freight rates high. Though this is being rectified now, carriage by roads is simultaneously on the rise. A unified, omnibus transport ministry would ensure that any policy decision on freight rates and other similar aspects benefit not just roads or railways in isolation but both.

Gadkari himself has been advocating integrated transport solutions at various fora. At the India Integrated Transport and Logistics Summit in May this year, he had said, “Our high logistics costs are a result of the various modes of transport growing and developing in silos, in an un-integrated manner. Integrated, multi modal transport planning will help us to achieve a healthy modal mix of transport, which is efficient, faster, safer, import substituting, cost effective and pollution free.”

Coming to the civil aviation sector, merger of the civil aviation into a new, omnibus transport ministry would also be hugely beneficial since apart from addressing the problem of infrastructure bottlenecks emerging due to the boom in domestic air traffic, this would also mean integrated transport solutions are found – when an airport is built or an unused airport is being readied for operations, how an integrated approach provides road, rail links to this airport is something an omnibus ministry can do better than individual ministries. Anyway, with Air India likely to be disinvested in the near future and safety already a function of a regulator, the Civil Aviation Ministry may only benefit from an integrated approach towards the transport sector.

As this article in Firstpost  in 2014 had advocated, there is a need to cut down the number of ministries across segments. It makes sense to look at greater efficiency through integration of needless separate silos. Freight rates charged by the railways’ cargo impacts road transport and also the air cargo business. When airlines say (specially LCCs) they are targeting the first class rail passenger, how can civil aviation policy be divorced from railway passenger fares policy?

Updated Date: Sep 01, 2017 14:36:40 IST



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