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Size does matter!

By George Iype
Last updated on: July 10, 2004 00:09 IST
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Which state in India has the largest number of ministers?

Easy. The answer is Uttar Pradesh.

With 88 ministers, 20 more than even the Government of India, Mulayam Singh Yadav's government is a mammoth one indeed.

But within a week Yadav will have to cut it to size. The Samajwadi Party boss has the unpleasant task of sacking as many as 28 of these ministers.

It is not Yadav alone who has to go through this exercise. Ministries across the country are being downsized to fall in line with a new law: the 91st Amendment to the Constitution.

The Constitution (91st Amendment) Act, 2003, which limits the size of all ministries in India, comes into force on July 7. This Act stipulates that the strength of a council of ministers should not exceed 15 percent of the total number of members in the Lok Sabha (in case of the central government) or the relevant state assembly. An exception has been made only for smaller states such as Sikkim, Mizoram and Goa where the strength of the assembly is 40 or less. There, the state government can have a maximum of 12 ministers.

The result: Uttar Pradesh, whose assembly has a strength of 403 members, can only have a maximum of 60 ministers.

Likewise, the Maharashtra government headed by Sushilkumar Shinde was trimmed from the current 69 ministers to 43.

The number of ministers in Bihar will have to come down from 52 to 36, and in Punjab from 30 to 17.

A pruning exercise is on across the states to cut the flab. Already all ministers in Punjab except Chief Minister Amarinder Singh have resigned; a leaner government comprising 17 ministers will take oath soon.

In states like Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya, the cutting will be merciless.

Arunachal Pradesh, which has 43 ministers answering to a 60 member assembly, will have to drop as many as 31 ministers; Meghalaya will have to sack 29.

The exercise, quite naturally, has caused political turmoil in many states. "No minister wants to lose his or her job," says Congress politician and former Union minister Salman Khurshid. Already, Rashtriya Lok Dal leader Ajit Singh has threatened to part company with the ruling Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh if his seven ministers in the Yadav government are axed.

But experts insist the exercise is crucial to improve governance. "The new law brings in a cleansing effect," former Cabinet secretary T S R Subramaniam said. "Earlier, any number of ministers were accommodated in government to make and break coalition set-ups. Political parties cannot play with the number of ministers now."

It is not as if all state governments are stuffed with ministers. In Haryana, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the number of ministers is less than even 15 percent of the strength of the respective state assemblies. Some, like Madhya Pradesh, which has only 19 ministers, can add up to 16 ministers more.

But Communist Party of India Secretary Doraiswamy Raja said the law became necessary because some state governments were adding ministers "without any respect to the people who elected them. It looked as if one day all legislators would become ministers in some states."

According to Raja, the new Act will help state governments save a lot of money. "The cost of maintaining a minister is not small," he said. "Let the state governments utilise the money saved from this historic downsizing for developmental projects."

So how much money will the state governments save from this exercise? "There are no accurate figures," an official in the n Cabinet Secretariat said. "But it has to be quite huge."

According to this official, the salary, travel, housing, official and other expenditure of a minister depends on "the manner in which he spends it. There are also lots of costs to maintaining a minister, like a number of employees who are exclusively working for the minister's office."

According to the Union finance ministry's estimates, at least Rs 1.5 crore (Rs 15 million) is spent every year on a minister in a state government. Considering that some 260 ministers are being axed under the new law, the saving to the exchequer will be Rs 390 crore (Rs 3.9 billion).

Now that is certainly not a trifling amount.

Image Design: Rahil Shaikh
Photograph: Sondeep Shankar/Saab Press

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George Iype