The Hindu : Columns / Sainath : The austerity of the affluent

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Published: May 21, 2012 03:01 IST | Updated: May 21, 2012 03:01 IST ​

The austerity of the affluent
P. Sainath

A rural Indian spending Rs. 22.50 a day would not be considered poor by a Planning Commission whose Deputy Chairman's foreign trips between May and October last year cost a daily average of Rs. 2.02 lakh

Pranab Mukherjee's stirring call for austerity tugs at the national tear ducts. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has pleaded for it in the past and watched his flock embrace it creatively. With the Finance Ministry even acting on Dr. Singh's call in 2009 (economy class air travel, spending cuts), we are now in the fourth year of our noble quest. There are, of course, several kinds of austerity. My pick would be the variety practised by Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia. No one can challenge Dr. Ahluwalia's commitment to austerity. Look at the way he's stood up to the populist demand for a poverty line that makes sense. No pampering people here. Spend Rs. 29 a day in urban India or Rs. 23 in rural India and you are not poor. He's even asked the Supreme Court to uphold the imposition of such rigour on hundreds of millions of his fellow citizens. One affidavit filed by the Planning Commission defended a line of Rs. 32 (urban) and Rs. 26 (rural) a day. Since then, the Padma Vibhushan awardee and some of his colleagues have stuck their necks out to lower that further. RTI queries That Dr. Ahluwalia practises austerity himself is evident from two RTI queries. Both fine examples of RTI-based journalism, but failing to get the attention they deserved. Both exploring the anatomy of his austerity. One was a story in India Today (covering Dr. Ahluwalia's foreign trips between June 2004 and January 2011) by Shyamlal Yadav. This journalist (now with The Indian Express), has done outstanding RTI-based stories in the past as well. The other, in February this year, came from The Statesman News Service (reporter unnamed). This one took out details on Dr. Ahluwalia's global forays between May and October 2011. In that period, he undertook “four trips covering 18 nights [which] cost the exchequer a sum of Rs. 36,40,140, an average cost of Rs 2.02 lakh a day,” says the SNS report. At the time this happened, that Rs. 2.02 lakh would have been worth $4,000 a day. (Gee! Lucky for us Montek was
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Excise and Customs Duties. March 26. Wall Street model The corporate world here generally follows the austerity model of Wall Street. even the media journals of the super-rich in the U. they were bailed out by taxpayers and their employees were still paid well. agency found. That is a daily spend almost 9. (“The Union Cabinet gets healthier. The stats from the Shyamlal Yadav's RTI are fascinating. Workers in Air India. The kind the French increasingly fear and have voted against. too. The U.” Since the post he holds does not require so much foreign travel — all of it done. Which body has received public subsidies (by way of entertainment tax waivers. (See “To fix BPL. This year.” That's probably higher than Kingfisher is flying right now.6 billion in bonuses in 2008.000 www.000) in 18 days might well have been his personal stimulus to global tourism in that year. 8. said the India Today story. adding on average. on the other hand.. with far more guests than seen at any IPL final. Bonuses and overall compensation did not vary significantly as profits diminished. Mukesh Ambani with his 27-floor (but higher than 50 storeys) costliest residence in living memory. while receiving $175 billion in taxpayers funds. Praful Patel (UPA-NCP) and Nitin Gadkari (NDABJP) have hosted two of the costliest weddings ever. Sitaram Yechury pointed out in Parliament that these write-offs for the super-rich exceeded the fiscal deficit by Rs. that 2011 saw global travel revenues cross $1 trillion. until the matter went to the Bombay High Court. Praful Patel excelled.5/29/12 The Hindu : Columns / Sainath : The austerity of the affluent into austerity. 2012). stupid things like trying to give people work. All the while. There are other public-funded austerities linked to the IPL — watch this space. The India Today story found that his excursions cost the exchequer Rs.000 times greater than the 45 cents cut-off point at which rural Indians would be doing okay. we'll have to spend more on his travel: look at those revolting Greeks killing the Cause on the streets of Athens. Ahluwalia would find “normatively adequate.S. half-a-million rupees to his assets every 24 hours in that period.” Note that Pranab's austerity prayer last week saw the soothsayers of the super-rich raging on TV that the deficit was all due to “one populist measure after another. And that's excluding travel days. And Vijay Mallya — whose employees in Kingfisher struggle for their salaries — who tweeted on May 5: “Having dinner at Atmosphere on the 123rd floor of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. However. as the United Nations World Tourism Organisation points out.6 million (or $72. write about CEOs destroying their companies.S. Each member added a modest million rupees a month thereafter. The Indian public can rejoice over its money playing a humble part in that recovery even while scorched by austerity at home.” That is. Ahluwalia made 42 official foreign trips and spent 274 days overseas during a seven-year tenure. September 21. Never been so high up in my life. 3. their employees were paid well. To begin with. reduce hunger or send children to school. When the banks did poorly. Imagine what his expenditure might have been otherwise). Now with Pranab cracking the whip. When Dr. nine banks including Citigroup and Merrill Lynch “paid $32. Gadkari's son. Awesome view.S. the industry in 2010 was still recovering from the ravages of 2008-09. After all. saw a different kind of austerity.ece?css=print 2/3 . No mention of the Plutocrat Populism which saw about Rs. That 23 of the 42 trips were to the U. When the banks did very poorly. for example). Note the bipartisan spirit of this austerity: in the past few years. and Europe (where most of those 18 days were spent). There. Both own teams in the IPL. it points out that they received three different estimates of the costs of his trips and charitably went with the lowest. That is “one in every nine days” abroad. Or over 7. the year Wall Street tanked the global economy. CEOs in that country took home billions in bonuses even in 2008. which does not believe in planning (but then. 5 lakh crore (roughly $100 billion at the time) being gifted mostly to the rich and the corporate classes by the same Pranab budget in concessions on Corporate Tax. their employees were paid well. Their corporate counterparts take it further.S. What were these trips about? Spreading global awareness on austerity? If so. his findings show Dr.34 crore.thehindu. with “the permission of the Prime Minister” — this is puzzling. Gender-balanced Spartanism. under a Ministry he headed much of that time. The actual costs could be a lot higher. And even more on his trips to the U. Singh pleaded for austerity in 2009.N.” The Hindu. Also. neither does Dr. The largest revenue increases were seen in the U. in his view. including many who suffered home mortgage foreclosures. on average.000 times greater than the 55 cents cut-off point for urban Indians that Dr. struggled to get their salaries for weeks on end.2. That is. hard at work as Ministers. Ahluwalia).com/opinion/columns/sainath/article3439624.” The Hindu. there'll be even more austerity going around.” Now his spend of Rs. his Cabinet rose handsomely to the call. is even more puzzling. “it is not clear whether the figures include the expenses incurred by Indian embassies abroad on frills such as hiring limousines. to his or her assets over the next 27 months. perhaps. though.” reported Bloomberg in 2009. nix CPL. Patel's daughter and Mr. Millions of Americans. 2011). It quoted New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's report on the subject: “When the banks did well. where the austerity of the affluent is striking. That was for Mr. jobs and more — and gaining personally from it.

Massive increases in health costs bankrupting millions. India story Printable v ersion | May 2 9 . such as the exemption of diamond and gold from customs duty. as more and more of that life-giving substance gets diverted for other purposes.” Indians outside the charmed circle of the meritorious know a different austerity.27. But it is the ‘populist measures' aimed at the poor that get panned. Child malnourishment double that of sub-Saharan Africa. Jan.com /opinion/colum ns/sainath/article3 4 3 9 6 2 4 . How much nicer to practise the austerity of the elite.ece © The Hindu www. Amartya Sen (The Hindu. according to the Ministry of Finance.000 crore per year) than the additional cost involved in the Food Security Bill (Rs. Ahluwalia foreign trips.thehindu.5/29/12 The Hindu : Columns / Sainath : The austerity of the affluent crore. 2012) ruefully asks “why there is hardly any media discussion about other revenueinvolving problems.50. 7.000 crore). involves a loss of a much larger amount of revenue (Rs. Families cutting back sharply on milk and essentials. 2 01 2 1 0:1 8:3 3 PM | http://www.thehindu.ece?css=print 3/3 . Food inflation in double digits. BPL. which. A drinking water scarcity for many. Keywords: Montek Singh Ahluwalia. austerity measures. poverty line. Farmers unable to afford inputs or access credit.com/opinion/columns/sainath/article3439624. Vegetable prices rising 60 per cent in a year.

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