Narendra Modi should think beyond Budget – Tavleen Singh

A small flat in Lutyens’ Delhi fetches a monthly rent of between Rs 2 and 5 lakhs, so the large apartments that are bequeathed Members of Parliament would be twice that much.

Next week Narendra Modi’s Government will present its first Budget. The Prime Minister has personally confirmed that he has inherited an economy in the doldrums and Government coffers that have almost no money in them. There is no reason to disbelieve him since in the last three years of the Sonia-Manmohan Government, the economy went back to growth rates more typical of the sixties and seventies in real terms.

Since times are so bad, should the new Government not be thinking of innovative ways to cut spending? Can there be a better time to do this than now when a political party that has ruled India for more than half a century has finally been ousted? So hopefully, the new Finance Minister will not plod along the same road his predecessors did in the past decade because it was a road that led to ruin for India. But, even if he does not come up with a whole new approach, there are things that the Prime Minister can do that could effect drastic cuts in Government spending on itself.

Let me start with a cause that I have campaigned for since I started writing a political column nearly thirty years ago and this is that it is time to stop using our money to house our elected representatives in accommodation more suited to corporate billionaires. The Prime Minster has already said that only Ministers will be allowed houses in Lutyens’ Delhi and that ordinary MPs will have to settle for lesser accommodation but he needs to go further. A small flat in Lutyens’ Delhi fetches a monthly rent of between Rs 2 and 5 lakhs, so the large apartments that are bequeathed Members of Parliament would be twice that much. Newspapers reported recently that Kapil Sibal, reduced now to be being just a lawyer, is paying Rs 18 lakhs a month to rent a house in Jor Bagh. Using this as a measure, it costs Indian taxpayers more than Rs 50 lakhs a month to accommodate a single Minister. Not even the richest democratic countries in the world allow this kind of reckless spending.

Why should India continue this very bad practice when making commercial use of Lutyens’ Delhi could bring in thousands of crores of rupees? So, please Prime Minister move your Ministers into bungalows on the 600-acre estate that surrounds Rashtrapati Bhawan where security costs will reduce hugely and move MPs into nice rooms in defunct, decaying Government hotels like the Samrat and the Akbar. The additional benefit will be that taxpayers’ money will not be wasted on free domestic gas, telephone calls, electricity and the maintenance of vast gardens.

If the Prime Minister means business then he must go even further and make serious cuts in spending on useless Ministries and useless administrative measures. He has hinted that he wants to abolish the Planning Commission and he is right to want to rid us of this relic from socialist times but while he is about it he can also close down the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting which is as much of a relic. And, he can save money by eliminating a whole range of useless paperwork that does nothing but slow down the process of governance. Let me give you my two favorite examples. Passport application forms can be reduced to one page from thirty and reapplication should be made possible online. Immigration forms for departing and returning Indian citizens should be abolished altogether, since computers already provide a full record. I cannot think of another country that makes its own citizens fill in these forms.

The Prime Minister promised ‘minimum government, maximum governance’ so he needs to recognize that this will not be possible unless he makes drastic administrative changes. Very few democratic countries have the convoluted procedures that India continues to have to do the simplest things. Property registration and land records are departments that are riddled with corrupt practices because the procedures are so needlessly complicated. These are things that can be done without needing to set up a committee to reform administrative systems.

Then there are the vast problems created by centralisation at various levels all the way down the line. So, we recently saw the Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University try to resist interference in the university’s autonomy from the University Grants Commission (UGC), but why does he not provide similar autonomy to colleges affiliated with the university? Why do private colleges find themselves forced to seek affiliation to universities that officials decide they should be affiliated to?

In Delhi, recently, I spent a morning with the Principal of Modern School and was astounded to discover the degree to which Government officials interfere not just in the curriculum but even in such details as teachers salaries. Schools that do not take funds or land from Government should be entitled to do what they want where these things are concerned but they are not. Officials interfere so totally that under the education policy made by the last Government, they even have the right to tell private schools which students they can admit and which ones they cannot.

The point I am making is that while Government interferes in a whole range of things that officials should have nothing to do with when it comes to real governance nothing seems to change. Officials are so busy poking their noses into what is not their business that they have little time left to do their real job. Their real job is to find ways to make life easier for the citizens of this country and it is on this front that they almost never deliver.

 

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