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BW Businessworld

Men At Work

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When the cat is away, the mice will play... right? Wrong. At least, India’s storied bureaucracy isn’t having a ball while the politicians are busy electioneering. Instead, some critical government departments are hard at work, ticking off items on their to-do list, so the next government can hit the ground running as soon as it is sworn in.

In the first week of May, when external affairs minister and Congress leader Salman Khurshid was in the midst of a heated election campaign in Varanasi — the high-profile constituency where party nominee Ajay Rai is taking on BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi — his ministry forged ahead with its diplomatic business. The public diplomacy division of the ministry worked equally hard on a campaign of sorts — fighting the negative perception of India’s pharmaceutical industry created by its global rivals.

The ministry organised a special screening of a documentary, Fire In The Blood, before representatives of foreign embassies and the international media. It was intended to showcase the life-saving role the Indian generic drug industry has played in making anti-AIDS medicines available to millions of poor patients in Africa at a fraction of the cost charged by innovator brands. The film was screened two days after the United States Trade Representative (USTR), in its annual Special 301 Report, put India on the “priority watch list”, indicating the serious concern that the USTR had about India’s “intellectual property rights (IPR)” compliance levels.

India’s response to the USTR report was not limited to this act of public diplomacy. The commerce ministry — the administrative ministry for trade and IPR issues — has already conveyed its stand. Rajeev Kher, commerce secretary, has informed USTR that the right forum to discuss the concerns of the US industry will be the bilateral Trade Policy Forum (TPF) that is already in place. “We have decided to have the next TPF in June. The secretary (commerce) will meet the deputy USTR during this meeting,” a ministry official said. Here again, there’s no dearth of action despite the election campaign priorities of commerce minister Anand Sharma.

The handling of the USTR crisis just goes to show that there is no let-up in business at the commerce ministry. Conferences and meetings continue as scheduled. For instance, on 5 May, a ministry arm — the Directorate General of Anti-Dumping and Allied Duties — initiated an inquiry into the alleged dumping of the chemical hexamine by Chinese and UAE firms in the domestic market.

The commerce ministry is also busy drafting the Foreign Trade Policy for the next five years —2014-19. Outlining the ministry’s agenda, Kher says the new policy will treat foreign trade as a composite economic activity. “Various government departments and the state governments need to work in tandem. The foreign trade policy should have strategic objectives to address, should be contextualised and not just be an amalgamation of a set of instruments towards export promotion,” says Kher. While the final policy will be announced after the new government assumes office, the draft will be ready for the new minister to examine and approve.

The finance ministry’s role is even more crucial as the country will need a full budget as soon as the new government takes over. “The groundwork has to be completed soon as the new budget has to be passed within a month or two of elections getting over. A draft budget is more or less ready,” says a senior finance ministry official. While the technical details (income and expenditure) will be filled in, the bureaucracy will wait for directions from the new government and tweak the draft as required. The ministry remains a hub of activity for other reasons as well. “There are Plan schemes (schemes approved under the 12th Five-Year Plan) of various ministries that need clearance. Statutory commissions and bodies need to function normally. There are commitments (made and approved already) that need to honoured,” says the official.

Naved Masood, secretary, corporate affairs ministry, is, perhaps, the busiest bureaucrat right now. Almost 74 per cent of the laws prescribed in the Companies Act, 2013 can only turn operational when the corresponding rules, clarifiying provisions of the law, are notified. So far, the government has barely notified half of them, and the ones that have been notified require further clarification.

“The ministry is working on clarifications of the new rules and is on the verge of notifying an FAQ (frequently asked questions) to allay the fears and doubts of hundreds of companies in relation to the corporate social responsibility rule,” says a company law expert. New forms and procedural guidelines that are needed to comply with the new laws are also being issued almost on a daily basis, while the minister of state for corporate affairs, Sachin Pilot, is occupied with his election campaign.

Even the agriculture ministry is working round the clock. With the temporary change in weather conditions over the Pacific Ocean (the El Nino phenomenon) threatening the monsoon this year, the ministry is hard at work on measures to mitigate its effect.

The common link that keeps all ministries and departments on their toes is their responsibility to set the initial agenda for the next government. Cabinet secretary Ajit Seth has written to all ministries requesting completion of the ground work before the next government is sworn in.

A definite case of the lull being apparent, not real!
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(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 02-06-2014)

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