Is austerity drive a farce?
For more than a week now, newspapers and TV networks have been going hoarse over the so-called austerity drive by the Central government and the Congress party. While it is good to create a perception that the ruling party and its government were keen to identify themselves with the common man (aam aadmi), the present drive has assumed farcical dimensions. Pranab Mukherjee’s disclosure about his travel by economy class to Kolkata contributed to the confusion and one after the other, ministers started announcing that they would travel by economy too. A private secretary to a minister who had only a week earlier sought a favour from the Air India to upgrade him and his boss to business class called up the airline office two days ago wanting officials to confirm the tickets this time for economy.
Reason: The Congress president had traveled by Economy to Mumbai and so how could any other minister fly by any class other than economy.
Rahul Gandhi showing total disregard for his security chose to travel by train to Ludhiana and back. I wonder how the Special Protection Group (SPG) which protects him allowed this to happen especially when it is headed by veteran Bharat Wanchoo who was also in Rajiv Gandhi’s security team. We have to understand clearly that threats to Rahul and Sonia Gandhi are real given that two members of their family have been assassinated in the past.
Therefore, their choice of traveling by economy or by train should have been shot down by the SPG. As per security regulations all over the world, it is the security agency, which determines how to provide security to the Protectee, and the Protectee should ordinarily have no say in overriding the rulebook. I think, a tragedy is waiting to happen if proper security precautions are not taken and there is no express purpose being served by Ms Gandhi traveling by economy and Rahul by train. They are endangering not only themselves but also their fellow passengers.
There is logic in the argument that ministers should set an example by cutting down their costs. But that does not mean that they should display this by traveling economy. There is very little expenditure incurred when a minister travels by first or business class but when he travels by economy, he puts a lot of people to discomfort. Foreign Minister SM Krishna’s proclamation that he would go to Belarus by Economy and that of Montek Singh Ahluwalia to travel similarly for G-20 defies all reason. They should travel in comfort when they go to represent our country.
While ministers are falling over each other to travel by economy, the bureaucrats continue to travel ‘J’ class. It will be interesting to know how many bureaucrats have traveled “as per their entitlement”in Business class even as their ministers were traveling economy. If economics is worked out, not even five percent of total expenditure on travel is spent on politicians. The huge chunk is for bureaucrats. For any government to make an austerity drive successful, it is important to implement it first on bureaucrats.
Those of us who have lived in Delhi will recall that at one time, the use of official car was only meant from office to office. Most bureaucrats would travel to their place of work in their own car and subsequently make use of official car for official purposes. Later the rules were amended and bureaucrats first started fixing meetings half an hour before their official time and half an hour after the official time to enable them to use office cars. Subsequently, the cars started ferrying their kids to schools and their wives to shopping centers. The practice continues and no one has been able to do anything about it.
Another way of avoiding wasteful expenditure is to make use of services of existing officers instead of relying on retired officials or pensioners.
There must be more than 50 retired officials enjoying perks of office after their super annuation. Some are Governors and some are holding Cabinet or MoS ranks in various bodies of the government. They also continue to stay in official accommodation. Should they not be covered under austerity drive? But Indian people are obsessed with politicians and only see fault in them while the bureaucrats manage to get away.
There have been austerity drives in the past but they have not succeeded because they lacked the motivation. They were more cosmetic in nature and lacked sincerity. The only time I can recall when an austerity drive succeeded was when Lal Bahadur Shastri was the Prime Minister. I remember as a kid that he had given a call for “miss a meal” in the wake of the Indo-Pakistan conflict in 1965. People actually missed their Monday evening meal and dinner at weddings was banned. Only snacks could be served. The common people responded to his call and were touched by the Jai Jawan Jai Kisan slogan he coined.
Indira Gandhi too caught public imagination by her slogan of Garibi Hatao and went on to become arguably the greatest mass leader of the last century, something acknowledged by many surveys including one conducted by the BBC if my memory is correct.
Prices are going through the roof. The need of the hour is to control them. Pranab Mukherjee as the Finance Minister and the rest of the government should be worried about them and not preach travel by economy. These are political stunts and people can see through them.
Finally Rahul Gandhi should refrain from any (mis) adventure in future and abide by the advice of his security personnel and not that of some inexperienced youngsters around him. Such lapses are unforgivable and the Union Government must ensure that he is adequately protected and correctly advised when he travels. Austerity at a huge price is not worth it.