India steps into economy class
NEW DELHI - It's not often that Indians get to see their political rulers in their midst, except during election campaigns.
Otherwise, they are usually visible only on television; in real life, they are surrounded by heavy-handed security personnel and travel on chartered jets, helicopters or, at the very least, in first class, while armed convoys of vehicles guard them on the roads.
Lately, however, in keeping with its signature slogan of being one with the aam aadmi (common man), the ruling Congress party and the government are looking to be a bit different in times of drought, recession, lay offs, price rises and lower economic growth.
The aim is to cut 10% of the government's non-plan expenses so that the money saved can be used to help the needy and the drought-stricken.
The cuts cover mainly hotel, travel expenses, lavish banquets, advertising and publicity, seminars and conferences, office and administrative expenses and buying new vehicles.
Leading the austerity charge is Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, known for setting high moral benchmarks, who recently traveled economy class on a flight from New Delhi to Mumbai, surprising fellow passengers who lined up for autographs.
The move embarrassed at least one parliamentarian accompanying Sonia, who promptly exchanged his place in the vaunted double-value business class with a lucky economy class traveler, who readily obliged.
The Congress party "high command", as Sonia is referred to, has advised her elected members of parliament (MPs), ministers and party functionaries to slash their non-essential expenditures and accept salary cuts. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, too, has written to his ministers to show restraint.
Following immediately in his mother's footsteps, Congress party scion and general secretary, Rahul Gandhi, traveled by train in a chair car from Delhi to Punjab, when he could have easily taken a first-class coach or a helicopter.
A Congress leader was quoted as saying, "In tough times such measures by Congress' top leadership will set an example for others and youngsters to lead a simple and austere life, thinking of those who are less fortunate."
While Sonia and Rahul's travel bills are footed by the party as they hold no government positions, the message has got through to others, though private airlines are none too happy with the sudden dip in their business-class revenues, even as corporate travel has dwindled due to the economic slowdown.
Bureaucrats, ministers and MPs, whose bills are paid by the government, are the only segment willing to travel so luxuriously. Meanwhile, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, ever the loyal Congress soldier, flew on a low-cost carrier on a recent trip from New Delhi to Kolkata.
Mukherjee has also been instrumental in the exit of at least three ministers housed in expensive five-star hotels while awaiting their official accommodation to be readied to move into.
Foreign Minister S M Krishna, Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor and Unique Identification Authority Chairman Nandan Nilekani have vacated their temporary luxury abodes and moved to sedate government guesthouses, not known for their upkeep and comfort.
Given the proliferation of important people in Delhi, housing is always a scarcity, even as ministers wait for their allotment.
Krishna, meanwhile, has reportedly chosen to fly economy class on a commercial airliner on an official visit to Belarus and Turkmenistan instead of the exclusive government plane that is usually used by the country's foreign minister. To save on expenses, his entourage has been reduced considerably.
Federal Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel has also taken to economy class air travel, while Home Minister P Chidambaram is reported to have cracked down on wasteful expenditures in his ministry.
Not everybody, of course, is happy with the latest turn of events. Important federal ministers such as Sharad Pawar (agriculture), Farooq Abdullah (renewable energy), M S Gill (sports), Dayanidhi Maran (textiles) and Anand Sharma (commerce) have reportedly been critical of the Finance Ministry's austerity measures.
At least one minister is supposed to have complained that his girth is such that he cannot fit into economy class seats; one more has spoken about his height being unsuitable to cramped spaces; and another has reportedly said since foreign countries host Indian dignitaries in fine restaurants and hotels, the gesture should be reciprocated in kind.
One prominent Congress leader has been quoted as saying: "To be austere should not be reduced to one's line of travel."
A clearly unhappy Tharoor has written on his social networking website that he would travel "in cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows", much to the chagrin of his party higher-ups, who see his statement as hurting the sensitivities of the many who travel economy.
The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has described these latest events as a "ludicrous display to deflect attention from the most unprecedented price rises ever witnessed".
A spokesperson of the BJP said: "The euphoric sermon of United Progressive Alliance leaders is suspect ... Simplicity and austerity is utopian to the Congress party and the facade is not going to stay for long.'
The left parties, meanwhile, have prided themselves by declaring that their leaders travel economy class in any case.
Indeed, the gestures, welcome as they are, count for nothing and are merely symbolic tokens when one looks at the big expenditure heads of the government.
Estimates conclude the austerity measures will save at the maximum 2 billion rupees (US$41.6 million), which is a pittance compared to the overall situation, including the rising fiscal deficit and profligacy of the government.
In 2009-10, the budget projected government spending of over hundreds of billions of rupees in subsidies (in food, power, fuel), farm debt waiver schemes, pensions, wages and defense outlays, where the scope of any cuts is very limited.
Then there are immense amounts being spent on new ministries and departments that continue to be created at a fast pace.
The room for increased spending on infrastructure, health, education and poverty alleviation, thus remains curtailed.
There are those who say that pegging down some of the perks enjoyed by the high and mighty only bring down their exalted levels of existence to that of the upper-middle classes.
On the other hand, there are over 300 million in India, out of a population of 1.2 billion, who continue to eke out a bare existence below poverty levels and lead a life of deprivation - for them one meal a day and basic shelter are a luxury. No healthcare exists.
In such circumstances, traveling economy or staying in a low-star hotel should be seen as the norm rather than a sacrifice. Frugal living was preached and followed by the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, given the living conditions of the masses.
Yet, most agree that such asceticism by the power holders will not continue for long as politicians and bureaucrats in this country are a pampered lot and unlikely to change in a hurry.
The self-imposed deprivation, if one can call it that, is expected to die out soon, even as the rains have picked up and the monsoons have turned near normal.
Given the frayed tempers, there are already signs of a thaw. Mukherjee has been quoted as saying, "I have suggested that in domestic services one should try to avoid [traveling executive class] because the distance is not far off. So far as international flights are concerned they can travel executive class instead of first class."
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]