Team Manmohan gets to work


New Delhi : A day after all members of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s council of ministers got their portfolios, many attended office Friday to familiarise themselves with their ministries while those who retained their old jobs reviewed their unfinished agenda.

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The 78-member three-tier ministry, which Manmohan Singh described as a mix of energy and experience, has been asked to set benchmarks. United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi stressed that everyone would be judged by their performance.

Vayalar Ravi, who retains charge of the overseas Indian affairs ministry, got to business straight away, saying his immediate task was to protect the Indians in Australia after a spate of allegedly racial attacks this week.

He said the government was seriously considering “an institutionalised mechanism” to prevent racist attacks on Indians abroad.

“The government has taken the matter seriously. My immediate task is to ensure the safety of Indians there. I have asked for a report from the Indian High Commission in Australia,” said Ravi.

Murli Deora, who retains the petroleum and natural gas ministry, announced a new scheme for distribution of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) in villages.

Kamal Nath, who now heads the ministry of road transport and highways, said regulations covering India’s road network will be overhauled and promised to change the physical landscape of the country’s transport infrastructure.

“We need to look at the old regulatory framework in an entirely new way and that will call for a complete change of mindset. We are looking at new models,” Kamal Nath said.

DMK leader T.R. Baalu’s leadership of the ministry earlier had come under widespread criticism.

“Policies cannot be measured – there can be a number of policies,” said Kamal Nath, the former commerce and industry minister. “But roads and highways can be physically measured. This is a major infrastructure area. Results will be seen… I have been given a challenging task.”

Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma, promoted to the cabinet, said India will maintain its exports at $160 billion for the current fiscal and unveil steps in the coming budget to help the sector.

“This is a challenging responsibility and I will benefit from my earlier experience. Economic diplomacy is part of global engagement,” said Sharma, formerly a minister of state in the external affairs ministry.

Sharma said India was ready to sign a host of agreements including a free trade pact with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and economic cooperation pacts with South Korea and Nepal.

The minister said the country’s export performance was laudable given that the global economy had shrunk since last year. “I am confident we will be able to manage at least $160 billion.”

Kapil Sibal, the cabinet minister in charge of human resource development, told reporters: “I want to put in place a system where every child and person can have access to resources and education.”

Former UN diplomat and writer Shashi Tharoor, appointed the minister of state in the ministry of external affairs, said he would work to strengthen India’s global stature.

“India’s place in the world is of great importance. India has had an honoured place in the world. I wish to make my own contribution to strengthening that very honoured place.”

Preneet Kaur, also a minister of state in the same ministry, said India wanted peace with neighbours but it would never tolerate terrorism.

“We always want good relations with neighbours but the one thing we will not tolerate is terrorism and sheltering of terrorists,” she asserted.

Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad said India would focus on developing new vaccines to fight new diseases.

National Conference patron Farooq Abdullah, who heads the new and renewable energy ministry, said his biggest challenge was to tap “new energy”.