Thursday, June 7, 2012

The upgrading

The Upgrading business
Upgradation is nice and welcome. I used to get myself upgraded on long-distance trains, more often than not, to get that great feeling of travelling “upper class” when Indian railways do not give you reservation readily and wait-list you; but on the train ask you politely whether you would like to be “upgraded” to more comfortable classes/compartments. I have jumped from “Y class” to “J Class” on Indian Airlines flights occasionally when I was a corporate boss. My wife travelling Air India national route Mumbai to Chennai once had the great opportunity to get “upgraded” and sit next to former actor and currently an MP, Jayaprada. After many years of that trip she is still not tired of describing the lady’s beauty. As for me, I had to decline an offer of upgradation recently when at the check-in counter at Pune airport for a Jet Airways flight to Hyderabad, a young man told me with an adequate gesture that for a mere two thousand odd rupees i could be upgraded to Business Class. I said to him with a similar gesture that at my age. I was aiming higher, and that was to be in higher realms, at the Lord’s feet. He laughed comfortingly and said that I had many years to go.    

We, the people, are used to reading the new incumbents to the Cabinet positions in Union governments demanding several crores of rupees worth “repairs” and renovation of the palatial bungalows allotted to them. Furniture, bath fittings, toilets, curtains, and more often than not the doors and main gates are changed at will.  A Marxist Home Minister of Kerala was known to have spent Rs.24 lakhs on renovation of a government bungalow before moving in. People made fun of the famed austerity of his party in power, particularly when the minister’s son was seen shopping around for suitable bathroom fittings, and when it was known that the so-called renovation included relocating the gate according to Vastu. The Minister immediately abandoned the government bungalow and chose an opulent  house belonging to a rich and controversial man not particularly known for his allegiance to CP(I)M.

I therefore appreciate the handsome, suave Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission clarifying that there was nothing wrong or unusual about spending Rs.3.5 million on upgrading a couple of toilets in the 50 year-old Yojana Bhavan. He was candid to admit that this was only the beginning, since all the toilets were going to be upgraded. In fact I was convinced even before Mr. Montek Singh Ahluwalia justifying the expenditure that we, the people, shouldn’t grudge our President, the Lok Sabha Speaker, the Prime Minister, the dowager empress who runs our democracy from a Janpath residence, the scores of Union Ministers, hundreds of MPs, the Chief minister, hundreds of State Ministers, MLAs and the other appurtenants of our democracy spending large amounts of public funds for “cleaning up” facilities that they \re entitled to use, and also for living and travelling in style at the expense of the exchequer.

Funny, people worry about the Planning Commission spending a few paltry millions on upgrading their toilets when the establishment itself is one of the useless remnants of the Socialist past kept alive as a museum piece of great ideals forgone. Great chaps sitting in Yojana Bhavan used to make or mar the industries, infrastructure, and everything in India that is Bharat. Allocating and disallowing funds for various activities was their job and pastime. They were the “higher-ups” in the “permit-quota-licence Raj” that pulled the country down as it tried to grow. Once a TI Cycles boss told me how they were pulled up manufacturing a few thousand cycles more that what they were “licensed” for! All other industries will have similar stories. The National Planning Commission, run by Nehruji, Indiraji and their acolytes knew what was good for the people; what had to happen or not to happen in India. I remember Prime Minister Indiraji telling a forein interviewer rather exasperatedly that how sorry she was when say, libraries were established and the rich people made good use of them to her great dismay. I thought she almost meant that her government was reluctant to fund more libraries in the country for this reason!

Ahluwalia’s Planning Commission is a weak vestige of those glorious days of controlled economy. I would say, the Planning Commission was always a fifth leg, now a dangling one. Ahluwalia and company could be expected to blurt out sanctimonious humbug from their high perches in Yojana Bhavan trying to defend all that the Union Government does or decides not to do. Half of the budget allocations will be spent on non-plan expenditure during any Five-Year Plan, with the planners looking the other way. Was the upgradation of toilets planned earlier or it just occurred to the planners that they needed to do their own bit in the context of such spending spree by all and sundry in the government. A mere Chief Minister of a permanently sick State spending Rs.89 crores plus to renovate her house, and the Dy. Chairman of the Planning Commission enjoying cabinet rank is not allowed to spend a paltry three and a half million rupees upgrading the toilets of a 50-year old office building of his? Where is equity, guys?

Now don’t ask me whether upgrading the toilets at such high cost means upgrading the activities in toilets for higher purposes. (By no means using the distal end of the alimentary canal for purposes of in-take!) There is scope for providing for closets containing edibles for nibbling during the month of Ramadan in these hyper-secular times. Eating and drinking openly during the Holy month when our Muslim brethren undertake day-time fast will be a good idea. In KSA, it was done so till the government and the Muslim inhabitants of the Holy country thought it fit to ban non-Muslims from eating and drinking when the Muslims fasted. That perhaps a couple of elections away, but the provision for imbibing fluids and edibles without hurting the religious sentiments of minorities is a good idea. I am sure necessary upgradation for the purpose would be made immediately. One advantage of such a move will be that it will have universal support.

With all his cleverness, the Dy. Chairman of Planning Commission could not avoid criticism for spending Rs.35 lakhs for “upgrading” two toilets in his office building because of his earlier defence of the official poverty line claiming that an individual above a monthly consumption of Rs. 859.6 in urban and Rs. 672.8 in rural areas cannot be considered poor. Ahluwalia’s would not have faced the negative propaganda and upgraded the facilities in his office at ever higher costs had the concerned officials done what generally many ministers and politicians in power do: ask the PSUs under them to share the cost of renovation. CPWD would oblige taking money from various interested parties for jobs undertaken by them in NCR. Or the Planning Commission could charge a small “commission” in kind from beneficiaries of their largesse - such as State Governments – by undertaking renovation in the interest of the nation in the same manner pointed out earlier. Surveillance equipment, smart cards for users etc could be similarly “outsourced” from the IM, the UIDA establishment and the likes! Continue the Good job, Mr. Ahluwalia. I love the cordial hypocrisy of the babudom which made you forget that the establishment you run defended the that put persons earning over Rs.32 a day above the 'poverty line' while you could show "inattentional blindness" towards the Central Government's pension of Rs.6.66 per day to the destitute Senior Citizens of the country. Great job indeed!

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