Charade of austerity: Ruling class remains austere on austerity

Ruling class remains austere on austerity: instead of making austerity a way of life, it chants the slogan from time to time, to no effect

Ruling class, Union finance ministry, austerity package, Rabindranath Tagore, finance ministry, public money, Department of Expenditure
Austerity and economy is indeed an imperative ingredient of administrative probity and productivity.

Yet again, an ineffectual ritual of an austerity package for a 20% cut in non-development expenditure has just been notified by the Department of Expenditure in the Union finance ministry. Following a decision of the Cabinet Committee on Investment and Growth, all ministries at the Centre have been directed “to reduce wasteful expenditure on travel, food and conferences by 20%.” And, as on umpteen occasions in the past, the directive has characteristically evoked a cynical reaction, “There goes that song again!” Hasn’t the finance ministry just retrieved the template of “unpopular steps” for curbing “wasteful expenditure” that, much like most of the predecessors, the NDA finance minister prescribed in 2014 with aplomb towards a belt-tightening in the government? Shouldn’t the custodians of nation’s finances first ask, why it is necessary to reissue the circular; when and by whom the older fiats on the subject were withdrawn and, if not, how come these circulars become just effete routine rituals, petering out, coming to naught?

Austerity and economy is an axiomatic ingredient of administrative probity and productivity. Why should it surface only in a crisis, and not be a way of life? An austere lifestyle is essential and relevant not merely to demonstrate an abiding identity with the aam aadmi, but also as a lasting virtue in public life and governance.

What is austerity? Let us see what austerity is not. It is not audacious adulations so often splashed in newspaper advertisements at huge public cost. It is not ministers and leaders collecting a vast retinue of hangers-on and a battery of officials in tow, spending public money on travel, entertainment, extravagance in renovation of offices and bungalows. Austerity is not parliamentary committees vying with each other for jaunts and junkets to salubrious climes within the country or, still better, far-off overseas locales. It is not huge expenses incurred on frequent state visits and jaunts in grandeur, or urge to add newer models to the fleet of cars for those in high authority. It is not judicial commissions, enquiry committees or retired bureaucrats remaining ensconced in sinecures for years. Nor is it the councils of ministers and public institutions and enterprises at the Centre and the states to bloat and expand. Keeping excessive lakhs of employees in government offices and companies is no austerity.
It is not having a bevy of commandos and guards securing the ever-growing tribe of VIPs. It is not jumping queues, nor whisking the privileged away from the essential security drill at airport. It is no austerity that some representatives of common people get narcissistic, vainly erecting monuments. Such acts potentially cause revulsion; nemesis comes about, sooner or later.

On the other hand, austerity is also no stark puritanism or parsimony. It requires no self-flagellation of hermits or the silence of monks. Austerity is certainly no sanctimonious hypocrisy. Austerity in public life is essentially the practice of restraint by people whose actions are in public domain, who must view public funds and property as public trust, whose every move is watched, perhaps emulated, and who set an example from above. You may have a large private income or inherited wealth, but its ostentatious display or a sign of conspicuous consumption just does not become you, if you are a representative of the people or a public servant.

From the time of Independence, the lifestyles of people in power or position have changed dramatically. Pre-1947, we had the pomp and circumstance of the British Raj (excusable in a sense as they had an empire to rule and a corresponding message to send down to the ruled) and the grandiose panoply of the Maharajas and Nawabs (understandable, but not excusable). The lure of an easy and extravagant lifestyle with an urge to grab loaves and fishes of office has captivated all sections of political leadership. As the virus has rampaged, it has sucked in its vortex bureaucrats and all others in public life. Today, frugality, thrift and husbandry are considered old-fashioned fads. VIP culture has caught the entire nation in its trap with all its accompanying ills. Basic governance itself has been hit hard.

So many of our netas pay obeisance to Mahatma Gandhi and invoke his legacy to eke popular acclaim, but few comprehend how Gandhi derived immense moral power, awe and respect from an exemplary austere lifestyle. As Rabindranath Tagore explained, “Gandhiji sat at the thresholds of the huts of the thousands of dispossessed, dressed like one of their own. He spoke to them in their own language.”

Austerity and economy is indeed an imperative ingredient of administrative probity and productivity. Examples need to be set by the highest in the State, by ministers, legislators and senior civil servants. Why must they not ensure that “wasteful expenditure” in the government is frowned as a rule? There can, and should be, a blanket ban on official entertainment, display advertisements, avoidable travel by special aircraft and special trains, meetings and conferences being held outside the central or state headquarters. There is a case for substantial reduction in the ever-increasing fleet of cars. There should similarly be a restraint in furnishings and renovations of offices and official residences, and a real cut of, say, 50% in the consumption of paper in government offices. Again, the country can well do with far less number of holidays. As the Fifth Pay Commission stipulated, there be just three national holidays in a year, in addition to a few restricted holidays for employees to choose from, of their own volition.

Likewise, in regard to other important recommendations it made, for example, downsizing the bloated bureaucratic apparatus, including secretary-level posts, by 30% over a 10-year period. An imperative need there is thus to usher the country in a new work culture and productivity ethos.

The austerity package that the finance ministry has prescribed will address just about peripheral aspects—a directive to cut non-development expenditure, also foreign and domestic travel, purchase of vehicles, arranging conferences and seminars, et al. Albeit important for an attitudinal reorientation, these prescriptions tantamount to be only cosmetic. Let us not delude ourselves. Confronted with the ballooning fiscal deficit, the finance ministry needs to come out with some lifesaving therapy. The Narendra Modi government has a daunting task of measuring up to people’s Himalayan expectations of achhe din to dawn.

The very credibility of government fiats and professions is today in question owing to similar sermons in the past having achieved little. The government is expected to govern, more resolutely so, in adverse circumstances when the going is not good. Nothing of substance is ever achieved unless people in position are prepared to rise above the circumstance and walk on the edge. As Barack Obama said, every day, families sacrifice to live within their means; they deserve a government that does the same.

The author is senior fellow, Asian Institute of Transport Development, Delhi


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