Laying waste public money

Laying waste public money

Token austerity: Like observing Postal Week, the UPAs belt tightening is just for one year

Once India’s freedom fabric, it took no time before the homespun khadi came to be looked upon as the cloth of corruption. Indeed, its association with politicians was anything but a sign of austere living and high thinking. Today, the first word that comes to mind seeing a politician clad in coarse khadi is fraud. Television images of at least two former Congress spokesmen, who would appear in spotless khadi kurta-pyjamas while addressing press conferences are at variance with images of the same politicians, now Cabinet ministers, attired in the finest of silk suits.

They might well argue that their jobs entail donning the best of suits. I agree. Then why perpetrate a fraud on the people by wearing the humble khadi when the image that gets ensconsed in the mind of the lay public is of a politician whose loyalty to khadi is always suspect. To top it all, there is a bureaucracy and staff to preserve and expand the craft of hand-woven khadi which has few takers in a country that has already embraced the virtues and difficulties of market mechanism. This is not to say that the cooperatives and the looms that spin out the coarse yarn should be wound up. The question that comes to mind is why perpetuate such waste?

Year after year, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) publishes accounts of mammoth government waste and corruption. It is the “sole authority” entrusted by the Constitution with the responsibility of audits and accounts of the Union and of the states. On a routine basis, as the watchdog on public spending, CAG investigates the procurement methods in government agencies and departments. It is no secret that millions of rupees are cornered by cliques of officers when bulk procurements are made in paramilitary forces like the BSF, CRPF, CISF.

There is no better example of government waste than the so-called acquisition of the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov. Public sector undertakings launch “pork-barrel” projects that are entirely without merit and could be lobbed out without in anyway harming the welfare of the nation. And yet, there are hardly any instances of government action to stem the rot. The truth is that despite all the highfalutin words on curbing wasteful expenditure, the CAG’s ineffectiveness is the surest indicator of its neutered status and the government’s deliberate feet-dragging.

In a country synonymous with the absence of the ideals of honesty, probity, merit and transparency, government waste is nothing but grand corruption. As Samuel Huntington writes, “In a society where corruption is widespread, the passage of strict laws against corruption serves only to multiply the opportunities for corruption”. The same holds true for actions like Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s so-called initiative to cut wasteful expenditure for only a year.

With the passage of time, the Finance Ministry’s half-hearted initiative will get buried in the myriad files of various ministries and government offices. Politicians and bureaucrats will justify foreign trips as most necessary to advance Indian interests. There will be an ostentatious show of austerity for the first few weeks and then politicians and bureaucrats will return to do what they are best at: laying waste public money. The most effective way to reduce waste is to cut out altogether activities that are by their nature wasteful. There is little point in trying to do economically what should not be done at all.

Government extravagance

Government waste could be defined as the unnecessary costs that result from inefficient or ineffective practices, systems or controls. The government’s wasteful expenditure - and periodic attacks on them - are hardy perennials. Like bad weather, everyone complains about it, but no one ever seems to do anything about it. There are good reasons why this is the case. Government waste is persistent because there is a demand for it. Waste of enormous proportions is built into the Central and state government systems, though most of it is expertly hidden. It is more prevalent than efficiency, more common than good works. Historically, the Indian political environment indicates that it was especially likely to nurture a parasitic political class and a venal bureaucracy, two components of a system that engender waste. It is in this context that government spending is wasteful spending for the benefit of unproductive “consumers” in politics and bureaucracy.

When the discussion turns to the topic of government waste, an outsider cannot help but notice the amount of money spent on campaigns for public office in this country or the resources employed to influence the outcomes of legislative, administrative and judicial processes. The extravagance among the governing politicians and bureaucrats is legion. Bureaucrats with higher status are accustomed to receiving particular benefits and services from government. It may well be that what lower and middle status officers regard as illegitimate favours and advantages are seen by higher status officers as merely the fruits of merit and expertise. The legitimacy of special favours and privileges, it seems, has much to do with whether one views them from above or below.

The government's one-year moratorium on excess and avoidable spending not just sounds but is hollow. For, it is not applicable to the country’s chief executive whose security alone costs the exchequer several hundred-thousand rupees daily. Mere cost-cutting on airline travel or forbidding press conferences and seminars in five-star hotels is not the answer to curbing wasteful expenditure. Mukherjee’s objective should be to apply the provisions uniformly and universally. If he fails to do that, he would have failed to minimise cost and maximise output. He should remember that the process of identifying best practice is called benchmarking.

The asking price

*  NIFT alumnus Mohammed Azimur Rahman’s de luxe kurta-pyjamas in cotton, silk, Irish or Chinese linen, and the finest khadi, cost up to Rs 12,000
*  Loyal customers include Laloo Prasad Yadav, Sharad Yadav, Ram
Vilas Paswan, Shahnawaz Husain and Rajiv Pratap Rudy, among others.

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