In the past six months, the one thing brewing at 7, Race Course Road, was tea. A man of few wants, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has availed of the option available to keep items gifted to him to retain five tea seats and one coffee set since July last year.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi picked up a tea set too — ceramic, hand-painted — to retain from among her gifts.
Since July 2013, the Ministry of External Affairs has listed all gifts received by government representatives travelling abroad on its website. The gifts, most of which are items received by the President, PM and members of the PM’s delegation, are deposited in the MEA’s Toshakhana (‘treasure room’) at its Delhi headquarters.
As per a ministry reply to an RTI query, a recipient can take any gift valued to be below Rs 5,000 for free. They can also keep the gifts valued higher provided they pay the difference in amount. Some gifts are also judged to be of “NCV (no-commercial value)” and can be taken by the recipient. The ministry does not reveal the country or person to have made the gift.
The MEA website shows that of the five tea seats and one coffee set retained by the PM, two were valued as “non commercial” and the others as worth less than Rs 5,000. He is yet to take a call on a Rs 2,500 crockery set and a set of six cups and 12 plates worth Rs 3,000. While Singh also received a show piece valued at Rs 4,000, a ceramic vase valued at Rs 3,000, three metallic bowls together valued at Rs 2,000, a Rs 4,800 wooden chest and a Rs 4,600 carpet, the “option” of what to do with them is listed on the website as “pending”.
PMO sources clarified that the tea sets taken from the Toshakhana were being used for guests at the PM’s residence.
As the RTI reply shows, a majority of the gifts in the Toshakhana valued between July 2013 and March this year were estimated to be worth below the Rs 5,000 benchmark, or to have “no commercial value”. Of the 145 items, only 12 were valued at more than Rs 5,000, including a Rs 1.2 lakh jewellery set and a Rs 9 lakh Rolex watch gifted to the PM. Also, Sonia received a gold necklece valued at Rs 7.04 lakh and a Rs 6 lakh Franek Muller, Geneve, wrist watch, while Vice-President Hamid Ansari was gifted a Rs 9 lakh Rolex watch. Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh was gifted a Fujifilm camera with accessories worth Rs 40,000.
While 21 of the items are valued between Rs 4,000 and Rs 5,000, 55 are declared as having “no commercial value”. Eight items are still to be evaluated.
As the MEA RTI reply says, the evaluation of the items is done by one ‘Customs Appraiser’ and “the same is normally accepted”. The appraiser is a jewellery valuator on the rolls of the Central Board of Excise and Customs (CBEC) with, as CBEC officials told The Indian Express, no expertise in valuation of items other than jewellery and gems. The appraiser is called once or twice a month to evaluate the items varying from ceramic sets and vases to carpets and watches.
As per the MEA website, President Pranab Mukherjee was among those who availed the option of retaining gifts, keeping a painting valued at Rs 4,500. Vice-President Ansari has collected a carpet valued at Rs 4,800, a commemorative coin having “no commercial value”, a cufflinks set (Cartier) valued at Rs 1,000 and a pen valued at Rs 800.
The recipient to have collected a large array of gifts is Foreign Secretary Singh. The website shows she kept a carpet valued at Rs 4,500, a silver bowl valued at Rs 4,000, a carpet valued at Rs 3,000, a blue vase valued at Rs 2,500, a Rs 1,000 wooden vase, and two more vases together valued at Rs 4,500. Also, she retained a hand-made pashmina shawl valued at just Rs 2,500 and a Rs 3,500 pearl necklace.
The Foreign Secretary still has the option to retain three saris valued at Rs 2,800, Rs 2,400 and Rs 2,600.
In end 2013, an MEA director retained a bottle of Red Label whiskey valued at Rs 800, while Department of Heavy Industries Secretary O P Rawat who has since retired did not take a Rs 1,800 Black Label whiskey bottle.
As per the Foreign Contribution (Acceptance or Retention of Gifts or Presentation) Rules 2012, the gifts valued above Rs 5,000 should be purchased “within 30 days from the date of receipt after paying the difference of the amount of the market value from Rs 5,000”.