Five ministers take charge, map out priorities (Afternoon Lead)

May 25th, 2009 - 5:50 pm ICT by IANS  

Manmohan Singh New Delhi, May 25 (IANS) India’s new coalition government got down to business Monday with five of six key cabinet ministers formally assuming charge and holding meetings with senior officials.
It was a busy day for External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna, with North Korea testing a nuclear weapon and a clash at a gurdwara in the Austrian capital Vienna triggering violence in Punjab. “We are determined to ensure that the perpetrators of this completely mindless and wanton violence (in Vienna) are brought to justice,” Krishna told reporters at his office.

Besides Krishna, who has been inducted into Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s cabinet for the first time, P. Chidambaram, Sharad Pawar and A.K. Antony returned to their respective ministries - home, agriculture and defence - for the first time after taking oath Friday.

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, the seniormost Congress leader in the government, assumed charge of his portfolio which he first handled over a quarter century ago when Indira Gandhi was prime minister.

Mukherjee, who said Saturday that his priority will be to put the Indian economy back on track, met senior officials to start work on the national budget, which is likely to be presented in July.

He held a series of meetings with senior officials and reviewed the status of various programmes and issues related to all departments. “Issues relating to the forthcoming budget were also discussed,” said an official statement.

Manmohan Singh set a business-like tone for his new government Saturday at a meeting of his ministers at his Race Course Road residence. Only six of the 19 cabinet ministers have been allotted portfolios.

The sixth, Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee, is set to return to New Delhi from her home in Kolkata.

On Monday, dressed in light grey bandgala suit, minister Krishna stepped into his South Block office amid a swarm of journalists and photographers.

As Krishna took charge, North Korea conducted a second nuclear test, and Nepal saw a new prime minister sworn in after weeks of political uncertainty.

Speaking to the media, Krishna condemned North Korea’s nuclear tests and its adverse effect on peace and security. He congratulated Nepal’s new premier Madhav Kumar Nepal and hoped that the stalled peace process will now move forward quickly.

The shootout in Vienna involving rival Sikh groups elicited strong condemnation from him. “We are determined to ensure that the perpetrators of this completely mindless and wanton violence are brought to justice,” he said.

Increasing security concerns in the country’s neighbourhood figured prominently in Antony’s priority list as he took charge as the defence minister for a second term.

Infrastructure development in the northeast and border areas, modernisation of the armed forces and welfare of the troops were some of the priorities he outlined.

“The security scenario around India is getting more and more challenging. Developments around us is a cause of concern to us. So, eternal vigilance is a must,” Antony said, referring to instability or uncertainty in neighbouring countries like Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Chidambaram, named home minister in November last year after the Mumbai terror attack, focused on revamping counter-terror methods and improving internal security of the country.

Reorganization of the intelligence network and tightening the provisions in the anti-terror laws will be other key challenges for Chidambaram.

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