Goa In ICU

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar

With ill Manohar Parrikar away in the US, state government has had no cabinet meetings for two months; members of opposition and ruling coalition say governance has slowed down

By DANFES

Indian politicians are generally not known to go public and speak their mind about political emergencies which have their roots in the health problems of senior leaders. But in Goa, they are not holding back. The state has been trudging along without an active chief minister for more than 80 days now since chief minister Manohar Parrikar was admitted at Mumbai’s Lilavati Hospital on 15 February for treatment of a pancreatic ailment, and then moved to the US.

The state has had no cabinet meetings for two months, against the norm of one every week. The assembly session was truncated to four days due to Parrikar’s illness, and members of the opposition and the ruling coalition say governance has slowed down.

A three-member Cabinet Advisory Committee (CAC), which Parrikar appointed before leaving for the US on 8 March, has been meeting weekly to cater to regular business in the CM’s absence. The committee comprises members of the three major parties that form Goa’s shaky alliance – Bharatiya Janata Party’s Francis D’Souza, Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party’s Sudin Dhavalikar and Goa Forward Party’s Vijai Sardesai. But legislators and ministers say they are not sure exactly what happens behind the closed doors of this committee’s meetings.

If Parrikar is out of the equation, the coalition faces the threat of crumbling, so there is no deputy or caretaker CM. Even in his delicate medical condition, the CM is expected to clear files, guide the CAC via email, and remotely run Goa from the United States, sources in the government said.

TROUBLE WITH CAC

The three ministers who form the CAC come from diverse parties, have traditionally not seen eye-to-eye, and are known to be power centers. Sardesai, who holds key portfolios such as town and country planning, and agriculture, however said: “The CM thought a consensus among the major parties of the alliance will be better for governance instead of having one person in charge. And there is consensus. There is no friction.”

The CAC, he said, is “very ably” handling day-to-day affairs as well as policy matters, and besides a mining ban, there is no pressing issue before the government.

The Congress, meanwhile, has challenged the concept of a CAC, slamming it as “unconstitutional”. A delegation of Congress leaders last month met Goa governor Mridula Sinha demanding the CAC’s decisions be set aside. The BJP is defensive and has sought to hide behind precedent.

“The governor is very happy with the present arrangement in which all parties forming the government are working together,” state BJP chief Vinay Tendulkar said. “It is not unconstitutional. In Tamil Nadu too, CM MG Ramachandran was away for medical treatment and the government was being run by his colleagues. The same happened when Jayalalithaa was away.”

UNHAPPY ALLIES

But not everyone is buying these arguments, certainly not some allies of the BJP. Deepak Dhavalikar, president of the MGP, a BJP ally with three legislators in the 40-member house, said his party had sacrificed a lot over the past two months, only for the sake of Parrikar, who quit as India’s defense minister to return to Goa and cobble up an alliance after his party fared poorly in assembly polls last year.

“There is a limit to which the CAC can take decisions, and in effect, the government’s working has slowed down. Unless Parrikar comes and sits on that chair, there won’t be any governance,” Dhavalikar said. He said the MGP will wait and watch the situation for another month-and-a-half. Although the full cabinet has not been meeting in Parrikar’s absence, the government has been circulating cabinet notes. But not all ministers are happy with the arrangement.

STATE WITHOUT HEAD

There are some key issues that the Goa government is struggling to grapple with.The biggest challenge before the state government is dealing with the 7 February Supreme Court order that banned all existing iron ore mining leases in Goa effective from 15 March. The court called for a fresh auction after ensuring the environmental viability of the mining projects and after fresh protocols is put in place. But that is expected to be a time consuming process.

The ban has brought one of the state’s biggest job-creating industries to a grinding halt and politicians estimate that it will impact the livelihoods of nearly 2 lakh people directly or indirectly employed in the industry. The state government, they say, needs to figure a way around the ban and lobby with the central government for help. Vijai Sardesai had suggested that the Centre bring in an ordinance for the resumption of mining activity.

REGION PLAN

The government is also struggling to placate protests over a recently-notified and much-delayed region plan to govern Goa’s development until 2021. The plan was drafted when the Congress was in power in the state in 2011. The BJP had then opposed it, backing the claim of activists that it would open the doors for unbridled construction and damage Goa’s ecology.

But once Parrikar took over as CM after the assembly elections in 2012, he didn’t scrap the plan but just ‘froze’ it. Six years later, town and country planning minister Sardesai revived the plan in March, triggering fresh protests.

Viriato Fernandes, co-convenor of Goencho Avaaz, an NGO at the forefront of the protests against the region plan, said: “We juxtaposed the plan with satellite maps and realised that vast amounts of green, ecologically sensitive land is being converted into settlements and commercial areas. A number of these lands belong to politicians across political parties.

The Congress has now extended its support to the protesters, while the government has appointed a committee of town planners and architects to disprove the allegations of large-scale conversions of ecologically-sensitive land in the region plan.

Goa BJP president Tendulkar said people who are opposing the plan have ‘vested interests’. “After CM Parrikar comes back, he will solve the issue. Parrikar is Parrikar; no one can take his place,” he said.

CONGRESS ROLE

Girish Chodankar, who recently took over as chief of the state unit of the Congress, said the state was losing out on its most productive time of the year, when the government should have taken swift policy decisions for better governance across sectors.

“Goa has a prolonged monsoon that goes on for more than five months, leaving us a window from November to March to get most work done. Last year too we lost this period because of campaigning and the code of conduct ahead of the assembly elections, and this year we are losing it because of the government’s selfish interests,” he said. The Congress is now preparing to take to the streets to demand a full-time CM in Parrikar’s absence, or the dissolution of the BJP-led coalition government.