Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, responds to P. Sainath:
The article “The austerity of the affluent” (The Hindu, May 21, 2012), is so misleadingly distortive on two points that I feel compelled to clarify the position. I have high regard for your newspaper, and subscribe to the notion that there should be full transparency in government. It is in this spirit that I hope these clarifications will be published by you, for the benefit of your readers.
The first error is comparing the daily cost of foreign trips undertaken by me with the Tendulkar poverty line, which incidentally is not on a daily basis, but on a monthly budget basis for a household. This comparison is intended to suggest gross extravagance. Air travel and hotels in major capitals are very expensive, and the class of air travel and the class of hotels are not determined by me, but by government rules applicable to all Ministers, Members of Parliament and senior officials. There is no denying that foreign travel is expensive, but it is often necessary for the discharge of official duties. I should add that each day spent abroad is filled with 14 hours of meetings, and is a day spent away from family and not exactly a holiday. We should, of course, attempt to reduce costs, but we need to consider whether and to what extent this would affect our ability to enter into negotiations immediately on arrival, or have delegation meetings in the hotel room. One needs to carefully weigh the costs and benefits before taking a considered decision, and in any event, this is a decision that would need to be taken by the appropriate authorities.
The second error in the article is to suggest that the frequency of my travels is unnecessary, as the functions of the Deputy Chairman do not require such foreign travel. I agree that the role of Deputy Chairman itself does not, per se, require extensive foreign travel. But the article omits to note that most of the foreign trips made by me were in the capacity of sherpa for the G-20, or as member of the Prime Minister's delegation. I am the co-chair of the Indo-U.S. Energy dialogue and the co-chair of the India-China economic dialogue. These are special assignments and not part of my duties as Deputy Chairman. The decision on who should undertake these tasks is not taken by me, but when chosen to perform these tasks, I consider it an honour, and do the best I can. As in the case of all persons of cabinet rank, each trip is cleared by the Ministry of External Affairs and the Prime Minister's Office.
I should add that G-20 meetings were especially frequent between 2008 and 2010, because of the global financial crisis. In fact, each summit was preceded by two or three preparatory meetings of sherpas. One could, of course, argue that India should not have been represented at these meetings. That would certainly have saved some money, but the question to ask is whether the country would be better served by not being represented. Finally, in the interest of full transparency on foreign travels I have decided to put all my foreign trips on the website of the Planning Commission so that all those interested can find out where I am going and why.