(i) Rs.2.02 lakh daily average expenditure for trips between May and October 2011 (well after his “busy” G-20 period ending in 2010). No “gross extravagance”?
(ii) 274 days abroad, or one in every nine. Factor in travel days and it could be one in seven away from office.
(iii) 42 trips, half of them visits to the U.S. (several trips not connected with his duties as Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission).
The link between the poverty line figures he supports (and defends in the Supreme Court) and his own expenditures is extremely relevant and pertinent. It is hypocrisy to impose one approach on an impoverished people while practising another — entirely different — for himself, with their money — public money. That too in a period where his government calls for more austerity. Dealing with abject poverty was central to the founding principles of the Planning Commission. But that, unlike Dr. Ahluwalia, is hobbled by “resource constraints.”
The travel period he cites as vital (2008-10) was one in which Dr. Manmohan Singh had ordered that government “severely curtail expenditure on air travel, particularly foreign travel,” except where deemed “absolutely necessary” (The Hindu, June 6, 2008).
Several ministers' foreign trips were cancelled and cuts announced in travel expenses. Two ministers lost their five-star hotel suites. The External Affairs Minister gave up his plane for overseas trips, and others flew economy class (The Hindu, September 13, 2009). Dr. Ahluwalia is silent on what class he actually travelled by, then or thereafter, or his expenses.
How much travel does he undertake within India — surely a priority for a Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission? Put that up on the website?
Costs of $4,000 (daily average) are huge. And we don't know what the embassies and consulates spent on him locally. But spending curbs worry Dr. Ahluwalia, who asks “whether and to what extent this would affect our ability to enter into negotiations immediately on arrival…” Hope he spares a thought for how millions of Indian travellers, like migrant labourers, journey, and have to be productive on arrival. He plans for them, after all. G-20 meetings in 2008-10 were held in different countries, but his visits mostly took him to the U.S. His U.S. visits were prolific earlier, too, as the RTI data show.
Given the importance he claims for his sherpa work in G-20 and other forums, which he admits is unconnected to the Planning Commission, why remain in the Commission and paralyse its functioning by being absent so often? The first day of the 11th Plan was April 1, 2007. But the Plan document was ready only on June 25, 2008 — an entire year wasted that brought cascading disaster for many vital projects. The “mid-term” appraisal came in the fourth year of that Five-Year Plan! Now, we're into the first year of the 12th Plan and it is not even remotely ready.
It is good to know the Planning Commission's website will carry his travel details. But the RTI data was also about his expenses. Will he put those up, too? Better still, if other PC members' expenses go up as well, to allow us comparisons.
It is a measure of how disconnected Dr. Ahluwalia is that he does not sense how the public views his expenditures. Nor, worse, the further damage his clarification will do to their perceptions.