In frugal times, babus get new belts

Here is the sartorial code for hard times. Most of us have to tighten our belts. Others, however, are lucky. They get new belts. Let’s call them perks. Amid all the turmoil in Muzaffarnagar and elsewhere, two such perks for those who ostensibly serve us have been significant enough to grab headlines. While health advocates in India are passionately espousing the cause of universal healthcare, Indian babus just gave themselves a sweet deal. Bureaucrats of three Central civil services (Indian Administrative Service, Indian Police Service and Indian Forest Service) will now be able to fly abroad for specific types of medical treatment for themselves and members of their family. Who will pay the airfare and the hospital bill? The taxpayer, of course, is the one wearing the tight belt. And kindly note that this progressive measure, no doubt in the wider interest of efficiency and morale of our civil servants, will be implemented with due process that reminds one of Yes Minister, the famous satirical British sitcom.
There is a nagging feeling that some people may see this as a freebie. To which a die-hard babu will retort that it isn’t. It’s not a free-for-all, because the ministry of personnel says there will be a screening committee that will decide who is eligible for medical treatment abroad.
And what are these complex medical treatments which necessitate foreign travel at state expense? High-risk cardio-vascular surgery, bone marrow transplant, complex medical and oncological disorders such as leukaemia and neo-plastic conditions.
Where does that leave India as the great destination for medical tourism? In an awkward position, to be sure. Clearly, those in the medical tourism business will have to modify their sales pitch if babus start going abroad in droves for complex surgeries.
How much will all this cost? A Press Trust of India report says there are 4,737 IAS officers, 3,637 IPS officers and 2,700 IFoS personnel working across the country. Now do the maths.
What about morale-boosting measures for civil servants who are not ailing, whose relatives are fit as a fiddle, and who do not need to go abroad for medical treatment? There is something for them and their families as well. Defying all austerity drives, babus headed for overseas trips are still allowed to buy full-fare tickets that cost more than twice the regular discounted variety which you and I, the tight-belt classes, buy. Full-fare tickets come with a free companion ticket. And if the companion does not wish to fly, there is another option — a free upgrade.
In 2008, during an earlier austerity drive, this facility was done away with. But babus fought back and the freebie was reinstated the very next year. Did the government take us into confidence when it did this? Tough guys don’t talk, as we all know, especially if it concerns incidental benefits that come their way. So, unsurprisingly, we learn all this from an RTI application which got picked up by the media.
Why do these freebies persist at a time when austerity is the buzz word?
Your guess is as good as mine. If you go by the vision statement of the ministry of personnel, which announces many of these rules, it is all about creating an “enabling environment for the development and management of human resources of the government for efficient, effective, accountable, responsive and transparent governance.” The 2011-2012 annual report of the ministry offers little nuggets about how this is done. Apart from all the other free things that come with being a babu, there are also little pleasures like the annual Cricket Coaching Camp for children/dependents of government employees — subsidised by taxpayers, of course.
Are freebies and special privileges unique to the Central government or a specific regime? No. Freebies are loved by one and all, irrespective of ideology, and abolition of any freebie is resisted by the entire neta-babu clan, during all regimes. Those of us carping about freebies are told that there is danger ahead. Babus on top of the food chain could defect to the private sector. In May this year, the Maharashtra government announced a scheme ostensibly to retain the best and the brightest of the elders among the babus: a hefty pay hike and benefits like free electricity and water.
In their defence, babus point to netas who are on top of the food and freebie chain among India’s privilegentsia. All members of Parliament, not just those who assiduously do their job, enjoy a host of freebies including free petrol, free telephone calls and free housing, most of it in the most expensive parts of the country’s capital. And members of legislative Assemblies get the corresponding freebies in each state capital. In India, MPs also get to decide their own salaries and perks. They gave themselves a raise in 2010. With that amendment in the Salary, Allowances and Pension of Member of Parliament Act, 1954, salaries of MPs were hiked to `50,000 per month from `16,000. Besides this, during Parliament session, MPs receive `2,000 extra per day. The salary and allowances rules also allow the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha secretariats to pay `30,000 per month to those employed by MPs for secretarial or personal assistance.
Many MPs hire their relatives as personal assistants. Babus have also seen their salaries go up substantially. Example: after the implementation of the Sixth Pay Commission, the basic salary of the Cabinet Secretary is `90,000 a month and that of a secretary to the Government of India is `80,000 per month. I would not grudge anyone a decent salary but then there are all the other paraphernalia that comes with the job at almost no or very low cost to him/ her — the low-rent bungalow in prime spots, the security guards, gardeners, cooks, free electricity, phone and lots more.
So what is the way ahead? It is legitimate to argue that salaries of MPs and babus should be reasonably high. But what justifies retention of the whole range of freebies and the de facto legal impunity when the rest of us are being asked to be part of the frugality narrative? Or does India want to pioneer a new definition of “public action” — action more to benefit public servants rather than the wider public?

The writer focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at patralekha.chatterjee@gmail.com

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