Ministers in Maharashtra’s jumbo cabinet fight for office space in overcrowded secretariat

first_imgBandu Savarbandhe, MoS (Food and Drugs) operates from his room in a MLA hostelMinister of state for tourism Chandrakant Chhajed is a very busy man these days. He is constantly on the move, issuing orders or making clearances for building material, tiles, plumbing fixtures, split AC ducts and the like.,Bandu Savarbandhe, MoS (Food and Drugs) operates from his room in a MLA hostelMinister of state for tourism Chandrakant Chhajed is a very busy man these days. He is constantly on the move, issuing orders or making clearances for building material, tiles, plumbing fixtures, split AC ducts and the like. With the Kumbh Mela slated to begin in Nashik in the last week of July, the rush is understandable. But as it turns out, the frenetic activity has nothing to do with the Rs 750 crore event . Chhajed’s activities pertain to a more immediate need: that of ensuring a decent office accommodation for himself. And he is having one built close to the secretariat. For four months now, the “roomless” minister in Maharashtra’s Democratic Front Government has been travelling twice a week from his hometown Pune to Mumbai to attend office. This in turn entails visiting various departments in his ministry or shuttling between Room No. 211 at the Akashvani MLA Hostel in Colaba and an obscure corner in the sixth floor cabin of his cabinet superior and Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal at Mantralaya where he clears his files. Suresh Jain Minister for Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Protection Works out of a bungalow opposite MantralayaChhajed describes the corner as a pigeonhole that cannot accommodate his half-a-dozen staff and a daily stream of nearly 200 visitors.The dilapidated barracks in the backyard of the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) booking centre whose construction activity Chhajed is currently overseeing may not be much of an alternative but he is determined to convert the drivers’ locker rooms into a swanky office which he can finally call his own. Chhajed isn’t the only one who is desperate for office space. At least nine ministers – seven of whom are first timers – inducted by Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde on January 25 have realised that though they have secured their ministerial chairs, they have no place to sit and carry out their work. Faced with this physical barrier, they are yet to come to grips with their new responsibilities. Chhajed would beg to differ. “I must be the only minister visiting over 17 departments in a day to get my office work done,” he says, claiming that there is no backlog in his department. It is ironical that decentralisation of power, a slogan of the DF Government, is finally being put to practice as the space crunch has forced ministers to work closely with their departments.advertisementMadanrao Pisal, MoS (Marketing and Employment) uses his senior minister’s roomMuch of this confusion stems from the fact that at 68, the Shinde Cabinet headcount is one too many and that Mantralaya cannot hold beyond a point. With everyone vying for a foothold in the stately secretariat building, work has begun to spill over to the corridors as well. Even laidback bureaucrats have suddenly started looking busy for fear of losing their cabins to the new ministers. “No one wants to get out of Mantralaya,” says Chief Secretary Ajit Nimbalkar. “It is a prestige issue.” Comic as the situation may seem, the General Administration Department (GAD) is still trying to figure out ways to accommodate the newly inducted ministers. So far, only a few early birds have been successful in finding space in Mantralaya. For one, Ports and Social Welfare Minister Ashok Chavan, who held the revenue portfolio, has refused to vacate his cabin. His successor Shivajirao Nilangekar would rather share Education Minister Ramakrishna More’s room than operate from anywhere else. Similarly, Housing and Slum Development Minister Nawab Malik works virtually out of a pigeonhole in the secretariat, a far cry from his earlier office on the premises of the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority in Bandra . When no more of the new entrants could be accommodated, the GAD made temporary arrangements to house them in the assembly building. But Speaker Arun Gujrathi promptly ordered them out and the ministers are back to being nowhere. Sunil Tatkare, MoS (Urban Development) operates from homMinister for Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Protection Suresh Jain, who is among the worst affected and is currently working out of the A-10 bungalow opposite Mantralaya, is not willing to compromise anymore. “I will not budge from here until I am given an office as per the norms prescribed for a senior cabinet minister,” he says. And the norms prescribe a minimum 1,200 sq ft office space for a senior minister. Trouble for Jain began when his predecessor Laxmanrao Dhoble refused to give up his room in Mantralaya. Dhoble, who currently holds the higher education portfolio, had changed his mind thrice on the matter. Initially, he was willing to vacate the cabin for Jain, then he decided to part with only a section of it. Subsequently, he wouldn’t let go of even that. It was at this juncture that Jain was asked to sit in Vidhan Bhavan along with nine ministers of state. When this arrangement too didn’t work out, Minister of State for Urban Development Sunil Tatkare was asked to vacate the A-10 for him. Tatkare left A-10 only on the condition that he be given a spacious flat at the Sarang building at south Mumbai’s Nariman Point. And he is the only one not complaining. “The flat is better as I can have some privacy here,” reasons Tatkare. Chandrakant Chhajed, MoS (Tourism) works from Bhujbal’s officeOthers have come up with novel ideas to solve the problem of space. Minister of State for Transport Prashant Hire and Minister of State for Marketing, Employment and Self-employment Madanrao Pisal, for instance, “temporarily” work from Mantralaya in the hope that they will be accommodated on the seventh floor once cabins are in place there. These ministers occupy the rooms – though not seats – of their cabinet ministers when they go out of town. At other times, they would rather stay in their constituencies than operate from MLA Hostel rooms. A visit to Room No. 411 in Majestic Hostel from where Minister of State for Food and Drugs Bandu Savarbandhe operates will give ample reasons why ministers dread working from hostel rooms. A dark and dingy non-air-conditioned chamber, it serves both as a bedroom and a meeting room. Heaps of files can be found lying alongside travel bags and clothes are hung to dry in the antechamber. While it is bad enough that the minister has to work from here, a dozen staff members are also crammed in. Three months after being inducted into the ministry, Savarbandhe had been allotted a room in Avanti – a residential complex housing senior bureaucrats in Malabar Hill. But it was occupied by a doctor attending to the Maharashtra governor who refused to vacate it. “I hardly have any choice but I can function from anywhere as my work is very transparent,” says Savarbandhe. He believes that his voters would be impressed by the amount of work he can get done for them even in such trying circumstances. Similarly, other ministers are trying to cope with their duties by usurping the real estate of government undertakings under their control. Suresh Shetty, minister of state for medical education, functions from a symbolic, if inappropriate, place: the St George Hospital’s administrative building in Fort, south Mumbai. Shetty shuttles between Mantralaya and the hospital and so do his staff and files. Says Shetty: “It is not an ideal choice but it is a convenient one.” Equally contentious is the area of residential allotments. Three multistorey complexes which were built to house bureaucrats have now been allotted to some ministers with the result that 26 officers have been pushed into the waiting list.advertisementadvertisementSuresh Shetty, MoS (Medical Education) works from a hospital buildingSome ministers are also giving them company. While some of them are hell bent on getting accommodation suited to their status, others are not so rigid. Minister of State for Housing Development Sayyed Ahmed has moved out of his official flat to his own home. Jain and Amrish Patel, sports and youth welfare minister, have displayed how coalition works at a personal level too: they share an apartment. Office and residential accommodation undoubtedly are the biggest concerns for the GAD, but there are other requests too – for telephone lines, official cars, parking lots, even stationery – which it has to cater to with its meagre resources. “A jumbo cabinet is a compulsion of coalition politics, a price we have paid for fighting a notorious Opposition,” says Bhujbal. The oversized Cabinet has resulted in an inflated expense of Rs 1.5 crore per month, not to mention a huge backlog of work. While the Government may use the space crunch to account for the pile-up now, it will have to ensure that there is no room for complacency, especially with the next assembly elections less than a year away.last_img