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The political class cares a damn about our money

By Sheela Bhatt
September 16, 2009 15:15 IST
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Whoever lives and works close to New Delhi's seat of power knows what a humbug it is when ministers and political leaders announce that he or she will travel by economy class or, worse, travels by train while living in the cosiest homes and the most secured zones in an insecure India.

Day in and day out we see colossal waste of money, siphoning of the nation's assets and utter disregard for the poor peoples's cries for help in the national capital.

One doesn't need to even get out on Raisina Hill, home to Rashtrapati Bhavan, the Prime Minister's Office and several important ministries, or inside Shastri Bhavan, where several ministries's offices are located, to list out the huge and unpardonable waste by the government.

The idea of austerity can't be ridiculed if its intention is sincere and thorough. Even the aam aadmi, for whose benefit this drama is being played out, knows the best way for the powerful to follow the path of austerity is not at all by travelling by train or by economy class.

This austerity fad began when the Congress Working Committee announced on August 19 that its ministers would take a 20 per cent salary cut in view of the drought. It was not enough, but to be fair, it was at least a symbolic gesture to sympathise with the drought victims all over India. But the way the Congress party went about it shows the one-dimensional politics behind it.

The CWC resolution, read out by the party's chief spokesperson Janardan Dwivedi, mentioned that 'the CWC has called upon the party and the government to observe austerity measures to reflect our concern and sensitivity... it will reflect our party's and government's solidarity with those who are facing the brunt of the drought situation'.

Reports quoted Sonia Gandhi as telling the CWC, 'The way we conduct ourselves in our private and public life must reflect our concerns for the less fortunate.'

Then arrived a smart news report in The Indian Express that said two Union ministers were staying in five-star comfort till their allotted government homes were readied -- although they were paying for it out of their pockets.

And in reaction, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee played his political sixer. As finance minister he is the nation's khazanchi (treasurer). He told the two ministers to check out of five-star hotels, and they obliged in full view of the television cameras. Since then the austerity business has been irritating most of our sensibilities on a daily basis.

Any alert Indian can point out hundreds of ways to 'reflect the concerns for the poor' as Sonia Gandhi suggested.

Six humble but serious suggestions to begin with in a country where more than 720 million people live on Rs 20 a day.

1. It is time Rashtrapati Bhavan turns into a knowledge museum for children or a cultural activity centre for India's extraordinary talents. Let the President shift to an elegant and luxurious mansion with 7 to 8 bedrooms in New Delhi. That should be enough.

This British viceregal palace with some 100 rooms is downright vulgar in a people's democracy. The Head of State's move would be great symbolism that the 230 million Indians living below the poverty line can identify with, and a historic one.

2. The best way to identify with the poor is to punish by legal means the utterly illegal exploitation of public funds by the rich and resourceful. In the first week of August, Minister of State for Finance S S Palanimanickam said the top 100 tax defaulters owe the exchequer a whopping Rs 1,410 billion.

The minister told Parliament in a written reply that this amount is more than three times the amount the government spends on the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme annually to provide employment to Below Poverty Line families.

Politicians are most welcome to travel by train and fly economy class, but they will serve the country more effectively if all of them unite to fast-track the recovery proceedings against these tax defaulters.

3. The total Non Performing Assets of India's public sector banks is Rs 164.33 billion as of December 2007. Most of these NPAs are part of huge loans taken by industrialists and businessmen who avail of loans using political influence over managers and directors of the banks and then swindle the money.

It is an open secret that most times, if not always, these rich debtors of the nationalised banks are supported by or are closely linked to politicians.

4. In 2008 under the Right to Information Act activist Dev Ashish Bhattacharya unearthed from the Food Corporation of India in writing that more than 1.3 million tonnes of foodgrains had rotted while in storage over the past decade. The FCI is responsible for the procurement and distribution of foodgrains across the country.

Bhattacharya was told by the FCI that almost 50 per cent of the foodgrains was damaged in Punjab, one of the leading states in agricultural production where no one has heard of floods or natural calamities.

If the food wastage is controlled, it can feed more than a million hungry bellies.

5. According to government statistics India's fertiliser subsidy for 2007-2008 was worth Rs 225.32 billion. This amount is estimated to be less then half of the requirement, claims a expert in Down to Earth magazine.

The Uttar Pradesh government has admitted in writing in a related court case in 2001-2002 that Rs 12 billion of subsidies were misused by scamsters known as 'khadh mafia'.

6. Actually, the list of corruption of various kinds is too well known and easy to get hold of. Instead of worrying about the mere Rs 200,000 expenditure on tiles and marbles in ministers's offices or homes, concerned citizens should visit this Comptroller and Auditor General's link:

The CAG's mission is to audit the government's spending to 'improve the quality of governance'.

None of the political parties or political leaders take the CAG reports seriously. Their reports don't have any political weight. Their reports on selective public sector units is worth visiting to know how the political class cares a damn about the public's money.

You have read Sheela's views. Now find out what former ambassador M K Bhadrakumar; yoga guru Baba Ramdev; high-flying minister Kamal Nath say about the Austerity Drive.

And if you spot an extravagant politician, please snap him. We want those photographs!

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Sheela Bhatt