F OR most ordinary Indians who have the tough task of balancing their family budgets every month, these are testing times. Just when the aam aadmi began to tighten his belt by another notch, our ministers put up a tasteless display of their own importance last week. It just proved how much they are out of touch with the common man whom they claim to represent.
If you watched TV or read the papers last week, you may have been led to believe that all it takes to cut government expenditure is to ask all ministers and MPs to travel economy class on airliners. MPs were interviewed and straw polls conducted to find out if our honourable ministers should indeed be dumped on cattle class. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee is not silly to believe that symbolic austerity measures will set the government’s finances right. When he asked two of his ministerial colleagues to move out of the 5- star hotel suites they had been occupying since May — because the bungalows allotted to them weren’t to their liking — he was not seeking publicity.
He was merely asking them to follow the rule book. It’s almost two decades ago, but it is hard not to reflect back on those muggy days when we Indians had to pledge our gold reserves to buy the next month’s ration. Since then, we have been on austerity drive. The Rao government started the trend in 1991 by initiating several cost cutting measures including — don’t laugh, I am being dead serious — asking ministers and bureaucrats to surrender one official phone each! Later governments did not abandon the austerity drive.
In 2005, even when the economy was booming and the government’s coffers were overflowing, the then Finance Minister P Chidambaram laid out guidelines for government spending. That however did nothing to stop our ministers and bureaucrats from accumulating frequent flyer miles on first class. Early last year, in a cover story on jet- setting ministers, India Today magazine had reported that in their first four years in office, 71 of the 78 ministers in UPA1 had logged enough miles to circle the earth 256 times. At least one minister had spent one out of every three days away from home.
This is extravagance that the country can ill afford. That ministers intend to continue with their bad old ways was evident at last week’s cabinet meeting when Pranabda was heckled by his colleagues — some of whom I assume are wide-bodied — who insisted that the economy class seats even in the widebodied Airbus airplanes were not big enough to ensure them a pleasant and comfortable journey. But Pranabda cocked a snook at them the next morning by flying abudget carrier to Kolkata.
Measures like 10 percent cut in non- plan expenditure on things like ministerial and bureaucratic travel expenses, advertising and publicity, office and administrative expenses, buying new vehicles and conducting seminars and conferences are at best symbolic.
How much does the government expect to save through such measures? Rs 100 cr? 200 crore? What about the tens of thousands of crores that could be saved if the government cut down on major expenditure by, say, downsizing its machinery. Instead of downsizing, each year sees the creation of new ministries and departments. Start from the top, at the council of ministers which is the largest ever in the country’s history. Each minister and his establishment costs the exchequer a minimum of Rs 2 crore annually. A notch lower come secretaries to the government.
Two decades ago, there were about 80 secretaries; now there over 400 people who hold the rank of secretaries, including dozens of bureaucrats who have been reemployed following superannuation. One of the perks of being minister is that you get what you want. This is all the more so in a coalition set up where every minister — even from a one MP party — throws his weight around. One cabinet minister recently refused to accept the house allotted to him even though his predecessor had spent about Rs eight lakhs just months before moving out.
You’d think the CPWD officials are a hassled lot, having to tinker with the same things again and again when they should ideally be taking care of civic amenities.
On the contrary, nothing makes them happier. They love ministers coming and going because every new incumbent means another round of renovation and another slice of the pie. I sometimes wish the RTI had a clause under which public spirited citizens could find out about money wasted by the government on needless expenditure. The figures would be revealing. And shocking.