The other side of austerity measures


Economy measures, coming in the midst of reports of World Bank commending India for its economic progress, sounds amusing. Long ago, Lal Bahadur Shastri as prime minister appealed to the nation to tighten its belt and introduced schemes like non-cereal dinners at least once a week. The scenario then was different as the country faced rice and wheat shortage. Green revolution changed all that. What prompted our finance minister to introduce economy measures now is not made known. Drought and floods cannot be the reason; they are wedded to India’s history. The measure gained extra publicity with Pranab Mukherjee travelling economy class while going to Kolkata the other day.

Many seem to be going along with him, perhaps because it is wise to swim along with the current. The dissenting voices of H D Deve Gowda, Rajiv Pratap Rudy and veteran Communist leader Pramod Das Gupta appear to be just cries in the wilderness.

The question then is, is such a measure necessary, expedient and workable now? Deve Gowda sounded the right note when he said that as an old and ailing person, he needed some comfort, and that he faced difficulties while travelling in economy class. Political leaders have irregular habits and untimely meals. They often strive to catch up for the lost sleep while travelling, in the assembly or parliament, and even in public functions. We cannot justifiably fault them. The economy measures should take into consideration the difficult life they lead.

Miserable class

That apart, how many can squeeze themselves to fit into the economy class? In a low-cost carrier, the economy class can be a miserable class. A bureaucrat, who measures six feet vertically, recounted a recent experience thus: He had to fly to Delhi last month and checked into a low-cost carrier. He was allotted an aisle seat. He could not sit properly in that seat. The air hostess and steward requested him to sit properly. He tried various angles and positions but failed. The steward then assured to allot him a better seat after the plane took off. After 10 minutes of torture, the steward took him to a seat in the emergency exit area.

This incident, perhaps, sounds funny. But visualise persons who are generously built like Somnath Chatterji and Renuka Choudhary. They were made that way long before Pranab Mukherjee thought of economy measures.

Wasteful expenditure

“Avoid wasteful expenditure” is good advice. But, should we be penny-wise and pound-foolish? What about the money wasted on parks and statues? About Rs 2,000 crore is being spent in Uttar Pradesh for statues and monuments when that state is reeling under drought. About Rs 350 crore is proposed to be spent in Mumbai for a statue of Shivaji Maharaj. In some places, statues are discarded like old clothes to be replaced by new ones at the expense of taxpayers’ money. Some people did not like the statue of Kengal Hanumanthiya in front of Vidhana Soudha and it was replaced. Some others do not like the statue of Devaraj Urs in the same complex. And it is proposed to be replaced!
The governments in the states and the Centre have several posts created at the top levels to shunt unwanted bureaucrats. Who pays for their salary and perks? Should the taxpayers’ money be spent simply because the top boss does not like them. It is said that Napoleon the great did not like men with short noses and selected officers with long noses to be commanders in his army. The Napoleon syndrome continues in the present day.

Measures to avoid waste should not lead to regulating the way of life of the people.  Dosa, for instance, is available in the roadside stall and also five-star hotels. Direction to eat dosa in a roadside stall is an effort to regulate the way of life. Such a regulation would even amount to regimentation. The quantity and quality of food and also the entitlement of space of jail inmates can be prescribed and enforced. But the government cannot resort to regimentation of the living standards of persons even if they are public servants. A person in a free country has the right to decide what he should eat, where he should reside and how he should travel.

Indira Gandhi started the ‘Garibi Hatao’ programme. She and her son Rajiv Gandhi as prime ministers did not prevent television and expensive foreign cars coming into the country to cheer our people on the ground that hundreds of villages did not have electricity or that millions of people in our country travelled in bullock carts. The living habits cannot be regulated. Otherwise, it will become like the urine therapy of Morarji Desai.

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