Bhupendra Yadav: Labour and Environment minister
Labour: Even Opposition leaders otherwise critical of government refer to Bhupendra Yadav as a man who does his homework. Now, as the country works to recover after Covid-19 disruptions, the labour ministry has its task cut out.
Speedy implementation of the labour codes is critical to reforms it has sought to bring to how employees work. The government has rationalised and amalgamated 29 central labour laws and acts into four codes — the Code on Wages, 2019; the Industrial Relations Code, 2020; the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions (OSH) Code, 2020; and the Code on Social Security, 2020. But the codes falling in jurisdictions of states have yet to be ratified by states, as is required under constitutional norms. If states are unable to speed this up, the labour reforms agenda cannot be wholly taken up.
The labour ministry has also kicked off a mega survey on migrant workers in the country, billed as a “game-changer” because it, for the first time, harnesses a range of digital tools that could transform the process of gathering economic data in the country.The survey on migrant workers — proposed after the massive job crisis that forced tens of thousands of them to flee cities after a total lockdown in 2020 — is the first attempt to estimate their numbers and details associated with their work.
Last month, the ministry also launched a digitised platform for migrant workers that will enable authorities to direct state-run benefits to them and intervene during crises. This follows a Supreme Court order in June that set a deadline of July 31 for the move. Whether authorities can cover every member of the workforce is a key challenge, analysts say.
Environment: Several environmentalists breathed a sigh of relief in July after Yadav took charge of the environment ministry. He has co-authored a book with environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta in 2011 on the legal aspects of forest conservation in India titled Supreme Court on Forest Conservation, and is known to be more receptive compared to former environment minister, Prakash Javadekar.
After he joined, the Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas Act, 2021, came into force, which oversees air pollution control in NCR and parts of Punjab and Haryana. The commission is expected to address the issue of stubble burning following the harvest of paddy in October.
Yadav has also had several high-profile visitors in the past two months, including Conference of Parties (COP) 26 President, Alok Sharma, and United States (US) special envoy on climate, John Kerry, who met him regarding enhancing India’s climate commitment ahead of the Glasgow climate change conference, COP 26, in November. The focus will be on the environment ministry and Yadav until November because India is expected to announce its enhanced nationally determined contributions (NDC) under the Paris Agreement ahead of COP 26.
The environment ministry has also come out with a consultation paper on amending the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 to bring significant changes to forest governance in India. This includes facilitating private plantations for harvesting, and exploration or extraction of oil and natural gas deep beneath forest land by drilling holes from outside forest areas. According to the ministry, the amendment has been proposed to recognise the considerable changes in the ecological, social, and environmental regimes in the country in the last 40 years. The paper is generating widespread criticism from environmentalists.
Mansukh Mandaviya: Health minister
Mansukh Mandaviya, 49, took charge as the Union minister of health and family welfare on July 8, 2021, but he was not new to health-related departments. Mandaviya held the portfolio of minister of state (independent charge) for chemicals and fertilisers, along with ports, shipping and waterways since July 5, 2016, making him well-versed in the area of drugs, vaccines, medical devices and so on.
Mandaviya’s knowledge of how the drugs and vaccine industries work held him in good stead, as the most significant change that India saw after he took over as the health minister was improved monthly supplies of vaccines against Covid-19, which, in turn, has led to a sharp increase in vaccine doses being administered every day. He continually engaged with the manufacturers of Covid-19 drugs and vaccines, and made efforts to facilitate increased manufacturing capacity. Both vaccine manufacturers, Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech, of Covishield and Covaxin vaccines respectively, have since nearly doubled their monthly production.
As a result, the national Covid-19 immunisation programme that started on January 16, 2021, has reached a stage where no state is complaining of a shortage of vaccines.
His focus on leveraging technology also saw the launch of the National Digital Health Mission, under which a unique digital health ID will be assigned to every citizen, which will contain all health records of the person. The IDs will be used to uniquely identify and authenticate people, and stitch together their health records across multiple systems and stakeholders such as hospitals, doctors, and diagnostic labs, making the whole process of seeking treatment in India paperless. This will help health care providers access information of those patients who tend to misplace their medical records.
Dharmendra Pradhan: Education minister
Dharmendra Pradhan isn’t new to the Cabinet. He earlier held charge of the ministry of petroleum and natural gas in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. He then replaced Ramesh Pokhriyal “Nishank” as the education minister. Pradhan was given charge of the crucial education ministry at a time when the education sector is witnessing major challenges, amid the Covid-19 pandemic and the implementation of the new National Education Policy (NEP) in the country.
Within days of taking charge, Pradhan reviewed digital education initiatives taken by the government during the pandemic, and directed the ministry to make continuous efforts to ensure uninterrupted teaching and learning.
Officials said that the minister was focused on clearing the backlog. “Within weeks of him taking charge of the education ministry, the appointment process for 12 of 22 vacant posts of vice-chancellors in central universities was completed. Recently, he also set a two-month timeline to fill the 6,000-odd vacant teachers’ posts,” an official said. The minister has asked all central universities to fill 6,229 vacant posts in a “mission mode” by October.
Pradhan emphasised the effective and prompt implementation of NEP 2020, launched by the Centre. “The ministry has recently also sought information from all states and Union Territories about efforts being taken to implement the ambitious policy,” said the official.
Pradhan is also directly dealing with the central universities. For instance, his intervention thwarted a crisis at the Visva Bharati University in West Bengal. In his recent meeting with the vice-chancellors of over 43 central universities, he mentioned his intention to personally visit the universities. Officials at the ministry said that Pradhan is now focused on completing all pending proposals including the higher education commission of India, and the common entrance test for central universities, among others.
“Other than NEP implementation, the completion of pending proposals is the priority of the minister. Many proposals, including common entrance exams for central universities, are yet to become a reality. Besides, the appointment process for vice-chancellors in 10 central universities is also underway,” said another official.
Ashwini Vaishnaw: IT minister
When the new minister for electronics and information technology, Ashwini Vaishnaw took over, he faced a long list of challenges — from a pandemic that made the need for rapid digitisation even more urgent, especially with the Covid-19 vaccination programme being dependent on the availability of slots on the government’s new mobile application Co-WIN, to turmoil in the technological space where social media companies were taking on the government over its newly introduced social media and intermediary guidelines. Vaishnaw asserted that the law of the land is supreme and social media companies would have to fall in line. In the meantime, the government reworked Co-WIN to ensure that people access it easily.
According to officials familiar with the matter, both the new ministers, Vaishnaw and Rajeev Chandrashekar (minister of state for skill development and entrepreneurship, and electronics and IT) are holding regular meetings with several departments in the ministry. From a broad-spectrum analysis of the challenges faced by the different departments to an internal review of various schemes under its ambit, the ministers have had several discussions over the past two months.
“Workshops are being held on electronics manufacturing, and an internal review of several of the ministry’s schemes has been undertaken,” an official said.
Another crucial task in the ministry remains maintaining a direct line of communication with social media companies and intermediaries, who have recently been brought under the new guidelines. The guidelines require the companies to appoint officials responsible for compliance and grievance redressal, as well as publish monthly compliance reports. In an interview with HT earlier this month, Chandrasekhar said that the ministry was working on guardrails to ensure that the companies comply better with the new rules. Chandrasekhar also met representatives from various social media companies in August to discuss the new guidelines.
The ministry is also focusing on its Digital India mission and its product linked incentive (PLI) schemes that aim to boost the manufacturing of electronics and their components in India. The PLI scheme regarding mobile components — launched in 2020 — has seen great success. The ministry is also considering a scheme to allow drones and medical equipment to be under the PLI umbrella.
Jyotiraditya Scindia: Aviation minister
Jyotiraditya Scindia took over as aviation minister at a time when the ministry was struggling to deal with the fallout of the deadly second wave, with the demand for air travel nose-diving again, after almost grounding it during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020. Indicating that reviving the industry was his priority, along with addressing issues that civil aviation was grappling with, the new minister announced setting up of three advisory committees — one each for airlines and airports, and the third one for maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO), cargo, flight training organisations and ground handling.
Scindia also rolled out a 100-day plan to bring major reforms in the sector last week, including operationalising five airports, six heliports, and 50 new routes under the regional connectivity scheme, Udey Desh ka Aam Nagarik (UDAN). Under this 100-day target, the ministry announced three key areas to focus on: Infrastructure, policy targets, and reforms initiative.
In a major step, Scindia, in August, announced the new drone policy, with the objective of making India a global drone hub by 2030. This was done after reviewing the industry’s feedback on norms. During the launch of its first trial-flight using drones, vaccines and medicines were transported to remote areas in Telangana. Scindia then announced that the project will be taken up on a pilot basis in 16 green zones in the state and scaled up to the national level based on data.
But his biggest achievement was the privatisation of Air India. With Tata Sons being selected as the winning bidder for Air India on Friday, decades of attempts to privatise a debt-laden airline has concluded. Scindia said that it marks a new dawn for the airline, and added, “I hope the airline will continue to deliver on its mission of bringing people closer through its successful operations.”
Anurag Thakur: Information and broadcasting minister
Anurag Thakur took charge of the ministry of information and broadcasting at a time when the government was struggling to set the narrative regarding the Covid-19 pandemic. Thakur is among the youngest ministers in the new Cabinet, and according to officials familiar with the matter, his focus is on “citizen-centric communication” in a synchronised manner across media and social media platforms.
“Publicity material has been made crisp and clear,” an official said. “His experience with the ministry has been insightful, engaging, and action-oriented. Timelines have been set and outcomes defined. The government’s fact-checking unit has also been made available on WhatsApp and Telegram.”
As minister for sports and youth affairs, he will continue to build momentum following the success of the Olympics and Paralympics. “Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) has yielded results, the focus is on the 2024 Games, and bringing more corporates into sports,” said an official.
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