Sunday, September 20, 2009

This austerity is all an eyewash

This austerity is all an eyewash
By M J Akbar

That inimitable 20th century intellectual and sleuth Hercule Poirot listed an unforgivable sin in his moral code: overlooking the obvious. The media dust storm over that hobgoblin, austerity, stimulated surely by low TV ratings as much as by high-mindedness, has obscured the most obvious of questions. Who got the money?

Travel is a minor percentage of government expenditure, but every little drop helps, presumably, in a drought. However, where is the money saved by humbler travel going? Has a special austerity fund been created to collect drops from the comfort-squeeze on politicians? Or is the government, which picks up most of the bill, simply retaining the money in its common fund, the bulk of which goes to pay the salaries of babus? As is well known, the biggest beneficiary of government is government.

The cost of MPs’ tickets, as well as for pricey hotels when Parliament committees go on tour, is paid by Parliament. Have the chairman of Rajya Sabha and speaker of Lok Sabha placed the unspent cash in escrow, reserved for the families of farmers still committing suicide in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh?The Congress Party pays for Rahul Gandhi’s travels, as indeed is appropriate. When he takes a private plane, the bill is in more lakhs than one can readily count. When he takes a train, the bill is zero, at least to the Congress: government pays for security. Does the Congress pass on what it has saved to rabi-wrecked farmers in south Bihar? One does not know. A little illumination would be most helpful.

Two and half ministers (Nandan Nilekani has Cabinet status but not ministerial position) were ordered out of five-star hotels and into more modest bhawans. (One of them promptly told the world that innumerable friends had offered him a place to stay. He should dine out as often as he can. The third law of Delhi’s physics says that the number of friends varies in direct proportion to your perceived level of power.)

Between the three of them they are now saving a minimum of Rs 60,000 a day. Have they adopted a village in Jharkhand with the money now denied to five-star hotels? Or is this cash further strengthening their already well-nourished personal bank accounts? Here is a subversive suggestion. Why not make them contribute an amount equal to their hotel bills to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund? If they can spend Rs 60,000 a day out of their pockets for a comfortable bed and a cup of coffee, they should be able to spare a bit of small change for the drought-afflicted. The truly outstanding irony, of course, is that when the three get their official homes, they will enter a world beyond the dreams of the most luxurious hotel in the world.

America’s cabinet members would salivate at the prospect of acres of plush lawn in the heart of Washington, around a glorious colonial bungalow fitted with contemporary amenities, as a personal playground. Chinese cabinet members would probably get jailed for fantasy, or shot for corruption. The Indian minister has a home that is the envy of avarice. Who pays for it? Actually, you. If you pay tax, that is.

Grandeur is the only definition of power in Delhi, and bitter feuds erupt over a potential address. Any successful social climber in impoverished India’s capital will ask for your address before he, and of course she, asks for your name. But it is only fair to note that if there is one man who has a right, in this system so heavily layered by hypocrisy, to raise the issue then it is the man who set off the austerity fireworks. Pranab Mukherjee has, without any doubt, the worst bungalow in Delhi. He was allotted this residence when an MP and has not changed it despite being entitled to far more glamorous acreage. That is one reason why when Pranab Mukherjee talks, his peers listen. The second reason is that he runs most parts of the government.

Now for a little, closely guarded secret. The big ticket in travel costs is not high in the sky but closer to the ground. Somebody should tot up the fuel costs of the thousands of very austere cars allotted to ministers, MPs and bureaucrats. Fuel theft is rampant. A single decision would ensure greater comfort, cheaper fuel, environment protection and less corruption: replace the lot with CNG vehicles. Will anyone do this? Your guess is as good as mine, but my guess is ‘no’. If you want to know the identity of a murderer in any Agatha Christie-Poirot page-turner, answer a simple question. Who got the money? If you want a way out of the complex labyrinths of Delhi, ask the same question.

Appeared in Times of India - September 20, 2009

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