Ending a farce

It was not expected that the austerity measures announced by the government in October last year would continue for long. They are to come to an end this month and it will be back to business from April 1. The original announcement had said that they would be in force till the end of the financial year and now it has been decided that there is going to be no renewal of the order. The spending restrictions will continue in certain areas like the eligibility for leave travel allowance but they are also sure to be lifted within an year so that no one may actually lose anything. All government personnel, including ministers and officials, will be happy that they will not have to travel cattle class and won’t have to stay away from five star ambience on official engagements and functions. Even great practical problems like the lack of leg space in economy class were cited in cabinet meetings, which discussed the austerity measures, as reasons for discomfort but now there should not be any complaint.

Even while it lasted the austerity measures were no better than farcical. Compared to the huge wasteful expenditure that goes on in government departments, their impact was almost nil. It is estimated that the government may have saved about Rs 2,000-3,000 crore. The budget estimate for non-Plan expenditure for the current financial year was Rs 6.95 lakh crore and it was to be reduced by 5 per cent. But, instead of a reduction of Rs 35,000 crore, the revised estimates show an additional expenditure of Rs 11,000 crore. So how does a saving of about Rs 3,000 crore make any difference?

The October order had cited the difficult fiscal situation and drought and the consequent pressure on government resources as the reasons for the introduction of economy measures. The situation might have improved now with the prospects of industrial and agricultural production looking better. But it is still not rosy, as the budget estimates prove, and the grounds mentioned in October have still not lost their sting and validity.
All that makes such a forced austerity regime only a political gimmick. It is easy to highlight the value of austerity and preach the need to make it a way of life. But the truth is that for most in the government it is a punishment. Unless austerity comes out of conviction, it promotes only hypocrisy.

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