Once in a while, the Government of India stirs itself up into action to check its rising expenditure. The steps taken are always the same and the effect too is predictably the same on every occasion: the expenditure goes up.
The first step in the government’s economy drive is, invariably, the issue of a ‘firman’ by the Ministry of Finance to all departments announcing sizeable cuts in the so-called ‘non-plan’ expenditure.
This means a freeze on all new recruitment, creation of new posts, restrictions on foreign travel and economy in office expenditure like purchase of stationery, printing of reports, entertainment and hospitality like hosting of international conferences in India.
Among office expenses, the axe falls heavily on serving of tea, coffee, soft drinks and snacks during meetings. In the use of stationery, insistence is laid on using both sides of the paper to write notes and type out letters and reports. Experience shows that instructions of this extreme type are the ones that are flouted wittingly or unwittingly.
Way back in the 1970s when the finances of the government were quite parlous, the Cabinet Secretary issued instructions covering familiar ground.
A few days later, he chaired a meeting of a committee of senior officers to consider the possibility of hiring large mechanised trawlers from abroad for the Indian fishing industry. Even after the lapse of half an hour, no beverage was in evidence, leaving the officers fidgety. It didn’t take long for the Chairman to divine that the customary restoratives had not arrived. He was taken aback when he learnt that his staff was trying to set an example to the rest of the government in following the economy instructions strictly. His discomfiture was heightened when the other members went to the extent of expressing their readiness to pay for their cuppa. A one-time relaxation of instructions was ordered, setting a trend for resort to such stay orders as and when the necessity arose.
During the 1970s economy drive, serving of alcoholic beverages at official dinners or cocktails had three restrictions. One, it could be served only if foreign guests were present; two, liquor had to be procured from the Ministry of External Affairs; and three, however large the gathering, not more than two bottles may be consumed. This encouraged hosts to include at least one foreigner in the list of invitees.
Since two bottles proved inadequate to quench officaldom’s thirst, indigenous brew was served after the first round with a hope and prayer that the foreign guests would not sense the difference and even if they did, diplomatic and party etiquette would ensure silence.
The restriction raised a problem of a more serious nature. Indian officials with their penchant for imported nectar made up for the shortfall by conspicuous consumption at parties thrown by foreign missions. An irate Cabinet Secretary had to send out a circular cautioning offenders of serious action.
The directive to use both sides of a sheet of paper brought its own problems: what was typed on the back was difficult to read because of the matter on the front. With difficulty, the dictate was obeyed and, as per the usual practice, wasted and extra sheets were disposed of through auction after retaining a small stock for use as hand tissue. This practice, though having the merits of waste recycling and water conservation, had its flip side too. Imagine the embarrassment to all in an office during lunch time when a newly joined officer was handed a copy of his CV inadvertently and told to use both sides of the papers!
Foreign travel by officials of other departments has always been anathema to the Finance Ministry, which considers such trips to be mere jaunts. To a good extent they are, but officials have their ways of pulling them off. One of them, for illustration, is to claim that heavens would fall if India is not represented at an international meet in Switzerland on, say, growing rural demand for chocolates in developing countries. Another ruse is to plead that failure to attend would send a wrong signal to the Group of 77 of which India is a doughty spokesperson. For effect, the Ministry of External Affairs can be roped in and the guardians of the country’s image abroad can be counted upon to support the cause.
If attending an international conference is important, then hosting one on Indian soil is more so. Here, the answer to any objection is to point out that the offer to host the meet was made well before the economy instructions were issued and leave it to the imagination of the objectors as to what would happen to the image of the country if the offer is withdrawn. Ten times out of ten, the objection would be withdrawn.
Those darlings of the government, Public Sector Enterprises, conduct themselves as if government’s economy instructions do not apply to them at all. They are a law unto themselves and the government departments that are supposed to control them tacitly support this arrangement though they may profess to the contrary. Who can deny the utility of PSEs in arranging a fleet of cars at the Minister’s residence, or in throwing dinners at five-star hotels on behalf of the department, or in arranging trips for Ministers and officials to holy shrines? The only thing the PSEs expect in return is that the officials defend them before the CAG and parliamentary committees, which is no mean task.
As King Canute would tell you, government expenditure is like the waves in the ocean, you can’t push them back.
(The author is a former Secretary to the Government of India. E-mail: email@example.com)