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UPA's newfound Mr. Dependent: Veerappa Moily headed 5 crucial ministries in less than 5 years

The lawyer-tuned politician has headed five crucial ministries in less than five years. He now heads the contentious environment ministry.

, ET Bureau|
Jan 12, 2014, 04.55 AM IST
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The lawyer-tuned politician has headed five crucial ministries in less than five years. He now heads the contentious environment ministry
The lawyer-tuned politician has headed five crucial ministries in less than five years. He now heads the contentious environment ministry
Oil Minister Veerappa Moily was on an official tour last month when he got a surprise call from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The PM asked Moily if he could also take on the additional responsibility of the ministry of environment and forest.

A senior Congress party leader and Moily's colleague in the government said Moily is not one to run away from responsibilities, but the task at hand was not very enticing. "Who would want to clear piles of pending files at the fag end of the government, just a few months before elections, at a time when babus are gripped by policy paralysis fearing that investigative agencies would hound them in the next government?" he asked on condition of anonymity.

Moily also seemed to have had his hands full. The oil ministry is a crucial ministry, one of those ‘damned if you do, damned if you don't' kind of decision-making authorities. The environment and forest ministry not only is just as important, but it has long been a magnet of criticism.

DIFFICULT JOB

According to government officials, the Prime Minister's Office was flooded with complaints from industry that decisions had come to a standstill in the environment ministry.

A recent ET report pointed out that big-ticket projects worth nearly Rs 10 lakh crore were stranded due to delays in approvals from the environment ministry even after panels tasked with appraisal had cleared these projects months ago. UPA leaders were concerned about losing support of the business community to Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of BJP, who is widely known to be industry-friendly. The concern was also voiced by Congress party vice-president Rahul Gandhi at an industry function hours before Moily was brought in the environment ministry.

Moily said yes to the PM without a moment's hesitation.

But why did Singh turn to Moily? Why not a fresh face or another senior minister? One key reason the UPA leadership picked Moily to lead the environment ministry was the speedy manner in which he managed to turn around the oil ministry in about a year. "He brought out the oil and gas sector from the gloom," says ONGC chairman Sudhir Vasudeva. The ministerial colleague says not only is Moily, a lawyer by profession, well versed with the minutiae of law, he also knows how to run the bureaucracy.

It is these strengths that helped foist Moily to head five crucial ministries in less than five years. He first had a two-year stint in the law ministry. Later, he headed ministries of corporate affairs and power and was made oil minister in October 2012 before being given the additional charge of the environment and forest ministry in December.

In less than one month, he has cleared more than 280 projects pending environment clearances. On Saturday, ET reported that he relaxed environment clearance norms for coal mine expansion projects, removing a huge bottleneck that has prevented Coal India from meeting growing demand.
 
At the oil ministry, he has succeeded in reforming the domestic gas market despite opposition within the government. Overcoming stiff opposition from the finance ministry, Moily notified the Rangarajan pricing formula on Friday. The move is expected to double domestic gas price and make Indian an attractive investment destination for explorers.

Corporates have welcomed Moily's appointment. Moily has raised hopes, according to Cairn India CEO P Elango. "Mr Moily has a compulsive obsession to take decisions without any delay within the contractual framework," he said. Cairn India operates the country's biggest onland oilfield in Rajasthan and was one of the victims of the policy paralysis that had gripped the sector between 2010 and 2012 after it came under the gaze of investigative agencies and the government's auditor. Cairn India now believes the stage is set for investing about $6 billion in raising the block's output by over 70% in next threefour years.

INVESTORS CHEER

Unlike his predecessor Jaipal Reddy, Moily shifted neither junior employees of the oil minister's office nor senior bureaucrats when he took charge. Moily's own style of work helped put bureaucrats at ease. He happens to be part of the rare breed of ministers who himself wrote notes on the files on several contentious issues. This persuaded officials to be decisive because the buck ended with the minister rather than them in case the decisions came under investigative scrutiny. It was the end of policy paralysis in at least one ministry.

"His approach was simple, take a stand without fear or favour and I will stand by you," says a senior bureaucrat in the oil ministry requesting anonymity. Moily asked officials to take decisions purely on merit and resolve industry issues as per the law, but he refused to tolerate indecisions and delays and this worked, he said.

In less than a month after Moily took over the oil ministry, several key decisions were taken in the ministry. Consumers cheered as the ministry increased the supply of subsidized cooking gas cylinders to nine from six. This was followed by a major reform in diesel prices in January last year. Moily empowered state oil companies to raise diesel prices by 50 paise every month and ensured that they exercise their freedom despite political pressure.

RS Sharma, head of the Ficci hydrocarbon committee and former chairman of ONGC, said the selection of Moily as environment minister is apt. "Fundamentals of Indian economy is strong. Problem is indecisions. Our economy needs five Cabinet ministers like Moily."

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