Austerity dictat opens a Pandora's box

The next two weeks have now seen an endless debate, a variety of phrases and metaphors (cattle class, etc) being used, lifestyles of many a politician being exposed and decried. The ministry had on Sept 7 announced a series of austerity measures, including a10 per cent cut in non-Plan expenditure, restrictions on domestic and foreign travel at government expense, air travel for babus will only be by economy class and so on.

A mere 24 hours after these guidelines came out, all hell broke lose on the austerity front for the UPA government as it came to be known that foreign minister S M Krishna and his deputy Shashi Tharoor were staying in five star hotels. They were of course, paying from out of their (deep) pockets. They were told to quit their luxury suites. Senior minister Pranab Mukherjee advised them to check into their state Bhavans.

They checked out of star hotels but not into the Bhavans. Former UN official Tharoor complained of Kerala Bhavan not having privacy or gym while Krishna’s dislike for the humble Karnataka Bhavan is known to many.

The problem for them like many other ministers and new MPs is their official residences are not ready. For Krishna, it had been an eternal stay away from official residence ever since he became MP in 2008. He was first allotted the house on Teenmurti Lane in which former minister Natwar Singh was staying. Krishna asked his friend to stay on until he made alternative arrangements. The renovation of the house was on when Krishna bagged the high-profile and protocol conscious external affairs portfolio. So, he began hunting for a bigger house which fructified only last month. The former chief minister and governor will move into 1, Tyagaraja Marg for which renovation is on. Until then, he has to stay at the staid Foreign Affairs Institute belonging to his ministry.

Like these two ministers, there are many others who are forced to make the state bhavans or guest houses their temporary homes. Former Maharashtra chief minister and heavy industries minister Vilasrao Deshmukh is staying at the BHEL guest house while minister of state for agriculture K V Thomas is staying at the ICAR guest house. Rural development minister C P Joshi and minister of state for home Mullapally Ramachandran are staying in Rajasthan House and Kerala House, respectively.

No vaccancy
That their predecessors have not vacated the official residences has resulted in many ministers not moving in. And the government seems to have no guts to check them out. Ramvilas Paswan, Jagdish Tytler, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Shankar Singh Vaghela and Renuka Chowdhury are among 17 who still occupy government bungalows in the posh Lutyen’s zone.

Even President Pratibha Patil had to stay at a MP’s flat for a month after making a surprise entry to the highest office. Then vice president Bhairon Singh Shekhawat stayed at the government-owned stately Hyderabad House as he wanted late Krishna Kant’s family to take their time in moving out.

If the government wants the MPs to shun star hotel culture, then that’s not exactly happening. As many as 74 MPs are housed at the  state-run Samrat Hotel costing about Rs 6,000 per day. These MPs can take a leaf out of the austere life of many of their peers, such as prime minister Manmohan Singh, who is known as a man of simple tastes, defence minister A K Antony, even railway minister Mamata Banerjee or Karnataka’s own M V Rajasekharan.

Talking of austerity, the 82-year old Rajasekharan told Deccan Herald: “When I was a minister at the Centre, I never took any assistant with me, carried my own bag, always travelled economy class, never went abroad though there were 22 invites, always stayed at a state guest house and not 5-star hotels when I went outside Delhi. I did not take a ministerial bungalow and stayed in my MPs’ flat. I handed over the flat keys at 12.30 pm on April 9, 2008, the day my Rajya Sabha term was over”. A lesson for those out to spend government’s money?

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