The Congress on Wednesday announced a series of austerity measures for its ministers and legislators including a ban on premium class air travel as part of the party’s efforts to cut down government expenditure in a drought year.

The austerity measures were mooted at the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting convened by party president Sonia Gandhi to discuss the drought and the spiralling prices of essential commodities. Briefing journalists after a three-hour-long meeting, Congress general secretary in-charge of organisational matters, Janardan Dwivedi, said the CWC decided that all Congress ministers and legislators at the Centre and in party-ruled States would give up 20 per cent of their salaries for a year beginning September 1, 2009.

This “voluntary” cut in salaries would be applicable to all members of the Congress who draw a salary from either the Central government or party-ruled State Governments. While Mr. Dwivedi did not announce the party’s decision barring its ministers and legislators from premium class air travel, other CWC members confirmed that such a directive had been issued.

Some CWC members drew attention to the huge expenses being incurred on renovating ministerial offices and bungalows and this was apparently frowned upon by the senior Congress leadership. Earlier, in a letter on drought management to all Pradesh Congress Committee presidents, Ms. Gandhi had said: “The way we conduct ourselves both in our private and public life must reflect our concern for those who are less fortunate than us and those who are suffering on account of drought and other problems beyond their control.”

Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee suggested that Parliamentary Standing Committees meet only in Delhi as huge expenses are incurred on the travel and stay of MPs.

‘Keep vigil on price rise’

The CWC resolution also urged respective State governments to keep the “strictest vigil on prices of essential commodities.” While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed confidence in India’s “ability and will” to withstand the drought, he apparently said there was little the Centre could do to check hoarding. Consequently, the CWC resolution states that “activities like hoarding, which create artificial scarcities, should be checked and hoarders should be punished in the strictest possible ways.”

This directive has gone to all the Congress-ruled States – 10 of the Chief Ministers were in attendance — in keeping with the general perception that if they act, pressure would be mounted on Opposition-ruled States to follow suit. Also, the CWC has decided to mobilise the party’s organisational machinery to help in drought management.

In particular, party functionaries will be asked to monitor the functioning of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act which the participating Chief Ministers described as a shock-absorber for the drought-affected. While the Prime Minister suggested the launch of a new mission for meeting the shortfall in pulses, Mr. Mukherjee indicated that more districts could be declared drought-hit in the near future.

More In: National | News