President Patil and other white elephants of our welfare state

Time – and critics – have been cruel to President Pratibha Patil. Her critics say that she spends way too much time going off on foreign jaunts and spending way too much public money. But it’s all only in the line of duty, of course.

These Presidential trips are undertaken not on her own volition but at the request of the government to promote India’s interests and to cultivate friendly relations, Patil told mediapersons as she jetted off on her final trip abroad as President – to Seychelles and South Africa.


These visits had helped to promote India’s image abroad, she claimed, although it’s pretty hard to say precisely how the ritualistic reading of cliché-ridden speeches by a woman in ghunghat, accompanied by her husband in ill-fitting suits, helps advance any positive perception of India.

And time too has been unkind to Patil. The government had actually wanted her to visit two or three more countries, she said, but where’s the time for all that?

It’s easy to see how Patil ran up a Rs 205 crore tab on foreign jaunts, but it’s not just about her. The Rashtrapati Bhavan secretariat travels with the President, although of course Patil stretched the limits by making many more trips during her tenure – and taking along her own entourage of cooks, groceries and even kitchen utensils, just to rustle up her spartan fare of dal-chawal-sabzi.

It may seem churlish for a $1.7 trillion economy to cavil about Rs 200 crore spent on travel over five years by India’s first citizen, but the problem is emblematic of a culture of profligacy that permeates all arms of the government. In fact, the entire top-heavy Rashtrapati Bhavan secretariat is something of a white elephant that performs only ceremonial duties. At enormous expense to taxpayers.

In addition to President Patil, a horde of Ministers are on the junket circuit, and although many proposed overseas trips are refused clearance by the External Affairs Ministry of the Prime Minister’s Office, there’s a whole world waiting for Ministers to explore.

In 2011-12 alone, for instance, Cabinet ministers, ministers of state and even former prime ministers spent nearly Rs 500 crore on foreign tour expenses, more than 10 times the budgeted amount, the Indian Express reports. No wonder Pranab Mukherjee has trouble balancing his budget.

It might have been worse, but since 2009, the External Affairs Ministry has refused clearance for at least 39 proposed trips by 25 Union Ministers, the paper added. Among those denied clearance were Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, Commerce Minister Anand Sharma, Coal Minister Sriprakash Jaiswal, Corporate Affairs Minister Veerappa Moily, Power Minister Sushilkumar Shinde and Food Minister KV Thomas.

It is nobody’s case that India must become isolationist or that we should all go back to a bullock cart era. Yet, there’s something perverse about such limitless junketeering at taxpayers’ expense, with not even the feeblest attempt at scaling back expenditures.

Our government is today a slothful beast that feeds ravenously off the mammaries of the welfare state. The President and our ministers and elected representatives have gotten too fond of the Good Life. We are at risk of being trampled by the army of white elephants that we are breeding.

Published Date: Apr 30, 2012 16:49 PM | Updated Date: Apr 30, 2012 16:57 PM