If you are seeking an audience with any of the ministers in Mantralaya — the state government headquarters — make sure you have a prior appointment and to reconfirm it on a day before and maybe on the day itself. For, a majority of them is not to be found in their offices for more than four days a week.
A team, they say, can only be as good as its leader. But the 38-strong Vilasrao Deshmukh-led team of ministers belies the dictum.
Save the chief minister and his deputy, RR Patil, who spend an average five hours a day, six days a week in Mantralaya, the others are usually missing, citing various reasons. The only exceptions are Tuesdays and Wednesdays when cabinet meetings are convened.
In the past six months, many ministers have chosen to skip their offices or have opted to run the show through tele-conferences, leaving behind a perplexed babudom.
Administrative officials at Mantralaya say that with the exception of Deshmukh and Patil, other ministers breeze in and out of office and spend most of their time outside, claiming they have to nurture their constituency or have field work obligations.
A senior cabinet minister said, “Till mid-90s, ministers used to be regular in their attendance in Mantralaya. Administrative work was conducted from their respective chambers. There would be regular interaction with bureaucrats from various departments. But things have changed in the last ten years.”
Ministers and bureaucrats, who retired a decade ago, recall how former chief minister Sharad Pawar set an example by working almost 10 to 14 hours in Mantralaya.
His presence kept ministers and bureaucrats on toes. Nobody dared take a chance to skip office, knowing he could summon anybody anytime. Pawar insisted ministers had to be at the beck and call.
One minister whose face one could never miss during the Pawar regime was the late Ramrao Adik, the then finance
minister. His punctuality and regularity are still talked about. He would enter his office at 10.30am sharp and never leave before 5.30pm.
Today, there is no timetable for any minister. Often, the chief minister has to direct his office to summon cabinet ministers — away in distant districts to tackle emergency situation(s) — or to make frantic calls at their official bungalows.
The magnitude of the ministers’ absence came to the fore after MLC Kapil Patil chose to observe ‘maun vrat’ (silent protest) to highlight Primary Education Minister Vasant Purke’s long absence from Mantralaya.
Patil felt that the problems faced by the teachers and students had been piling up in the minister’s absence. The chief minister himself had to convene a meeting to resolve the school education problems as Purke and his then secretary Anant Kulkarni were both ‘unreachable.’
Purke dismissed the charge, saying he was always on the job. It is not Purke alone at the receiving end of criticism. Chhagan Bhujbal, Rajesh Tope, Jayant Patil, Siddharam Mehtre, Ravishet Patil and Dayanand Mhaske have also been found to hop in and out of Mantralaya. Bhujbal and Jayant Patil always attribute their absence to field work. Many others never explain their absence.
Explaining his stand, Revenue Minister Narayan Rane said, “Whenever I am in Mumbai, I reach Mantralaya early and and leave by 3pm. But I make it a point to continue my administrative work till late evening.”
That the ministers remain ‘absent’ from Mantralaya is evident the way the desks and chairs in their chambers are covered with layers of dust — sometimes for as long as a fortnight.