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More than environment minister must change if course correction isn't to be too little, even if too late.
Virtually on the eve of parliamentary elections, the Congress's government at the Centre and its party leadership have signalled a course correction. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sought the resignation of his environment and forests minister, Jayanthi Natarajan. On her watch, the ministry was seen to be clogging the regulatory process for major infrastructure and development projects. On the same day, Saturday, that she quit, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi addressed businesspersons at a Ficci event and admitted to the corrosive effect of "slow decision-making" in clearing project proposals, saying there could be no excuse for this. Clearly, this two-step has been compelled by the Congress's paltry returns in the recent assembly elections. But welcome as it is, the move needs to be substantiated with more action. It may be rather late, but the government could arguably still make sure it is not too little.
The paralysis brought on by Natarajan's ministry is best illustrated by the fact that the Prime Minister's Office had to step in and broker a breakthrough after the National Highways Authority of India took the ministry to court for delaying projects worth Rs 2,200 crore. Other projects simply languished. It would, however, be underestimating the challenge of reviving growth and creating jobs to believe that this is all it will take. On Saturday, Gandhi mooted the idea of a special purpose vehicle to obtain all necessary clearances before the auction of natural resource-related projects. This is a good idea. But as he leads his party to seeking a third consecutive mandate to rule the country, he needs to embed these reforms in a more cohesive articulation of a vision for the political economy. Changing ministers — including, for instance, bringing the right person to the labour ministry to validate his reference to labour reform — will be, in effect, an exercise in clearing UPA 2's backlog in certain sectors. Going forward, he needs to signal a purposeful vision that puts party and government on the same page.
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