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The austerity charade

The austerity charade

Author: Shankkar Aiyar with Shyamlal Yadav
Publication: India Today
Date: September 24, 2009
URL: http://indiatoday.intoday.in/site/story?sId=63494&secid=36

Introduction: Trying to milk the drought for political dividends through pretensions of an austere life fools nobody. It is a cynical exploitation of symbolism and a spectacle of hypocrisy

Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet. So prayed Saint Augustine as he wrestled with carnal longing in his quest for salvation. The prayers could well have been that of the Indian National Congress. Dressed in a fig leaf etched with sympathy for farmers facing drought, the party has declared a "state of austerity".

Weighed down by embedded lure of pelf and stirred by the Gregorian chant for austerity intoned by the saints on 24 Akbar Road, the party is struggling to balance desire and restraint. Yes, the intention is worthy of applause but its implementation can only be described -even charitably-as a charade.

Recognise the symptoms of tokenism. All attention is in cutting down incremental, marginal and variable costs. No question of fixing permanent cost structures. Consider the engineering of this optical illusion with all this buzz about economy class travel.

The budget for 2009-10 provides Rs 160.76 crore for ministerial travel. Now assume all the ministers were grounded or were forced to travel by the Shatabdi Express and calculate the savings as a percentage of the Rs 10,20,837 crore budget. It is 0.015748 per cent.

Or look at the issue of using special planes. Does a trillion dollar economy need to humiliate its external affairs minister by forcing him to travel economy for 20 hours? What if he gets mentally fatigued and goofs on a crucial negotiating point? Is symbolism all? And what happens to the Embraer aircraft that were bought to improve travel efficiency? What is saved is only the fuel cost, the fixed cost of aircraft, crew; parking is yet being borne by the Government.

As always the path to tokenism was lit with good intentions. In mid-August, as India worried about a drought, the Congress Working Committee decided that party MPs should take a 20 per cent cut in their salaries and that party workers "adopt austerity measures to reflect their concern".

Laudable, even if symbolic, but it degenerated with ministers informing news channels of their "economy class travails". Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee asked MPs to travel economy within India and business class (and not first class) abroad. The economy class boarding card was the new loyalty card.

Interestingly, the Department of Expenditure (DOE) raised the limits for renovation and furnishings of ministerial offices including their residential offices in July even though drought was very much on the horizon. A few weeks later on September 7, a fourpage DOE notification targeted a cut of 10 per cent in non-plan expenditure.

The harsh truth is that it has targeted similar cuts since 2006 and never achieved it. Despite ambitions to cut costs, between June 2004 and November 2007, ministers travelled 1.02 crore km, or 256 times around the earth. And between 2005 and 2008, officials travelled 5.65 crore km and stayed abroad for 24,458 days.

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