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Bureaucrats sweat as austerity drive picks up steam

By Sheela Bhatt
September 17, 2009 17:58 IST
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Sheela Bhatt reveals how ministers are not the only big spenders in government.

The government's austerity drive worries not only ministers and members of Parliament, but even bureaucrats and the intelligence community who are used to luxuries -- at public cost.

Babus, police officers and the security clan spend public funds as lavishly as ministers do.

The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government entitled members of the National Security Advisory Board to stay at five-star hotels. The Board -- which consists of eminent Indians with expertise in security matters -- advises the National Security Council.

NSAB members, who lived outside New Delhi, stayed at the upscale Taj Mansingh hotel when they visited the capital for Board meetings. This practice continues under the United Progressive Alliance government as well.

NSAB members now stay at the Maurya Sheraton, the same plush hotel from where External Affairs Minister S M Krishna was ejected under Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee's orders.

Importantly, many NSAB members have complained that neither the concerned departments in the government nor anyone in the Prime Minister's Office ever reads what the NSAB recommends.

National Security Advisor M K Narayanan, they allege, hardly meets NSAB members who assemble at a substantial cost to the exchequer.

Public funds are misused more when the department or government officers are not in the public eye or don't deal with the public.

Chiefs of India's external intelligence agency, the Research & Analysis Wing, never travel by commercial flights, but use Aviation Research Centre executive jets. The Centre is part of R&AW. The agency's chiefs are often accompanied by their wives even though under security rules wives cannot travel on ARC planes. The log book of the planes shows these trips as training flights.

One R&AW chief in the 1990s took an ARC aircraft to Hyderabad to visit a relative, to Tamil Nadu to attend a wedding, and to Benares to perform his father's shradh (ceremonies after death).

Another chief travelled by an ARC plane to Colombo with his wife along with another senior colleague and his wife. Prime Minister Vajpayee had asked the R&AW chief to meet then Sri Lankan prime minister Ranil Wickremasinghe. The R&AW chief could have taken a commercial flight as previous chiefs had done, but he took an ARC plane so that the wives could go along.

This is the only instance when a R&AW chief has taken an ARC plane overseas, which is not allowed under security rules.

One former Cabinet secretary, who often speaks against corruption on television, once took an ARC plane to Chennai en route to Tirupati.

All officers of the rank of joint secretary and above in the government are entitled to travel executive class -- inside the country as well as outside. R&AW chiefs permit Cabinet secretaries and others, including politicians, to travel by ARC aircraft to influence them.

One former R&AW chief, who wanted to cultivate a defence minister so that he could be appointed governor after retirement, took the latter's lady confidante by an ARC plane, which was again against the rules.

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Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi