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On their own trip

The foreign junket culture in government is well entrenched

Since visits abroad entail spending precious foreign exchange, secretaries have been directed to be strict in sanctioning them and to use our permanent missions abroad to represent the country instead. Since visits abroad entail spending precious foreign exchange, secretaries have been directed to be strict in sanctioning them and to use our permanent missions abroad to represent the country instead.

By: Sudhansu Mohanty

It is nobody’s case that foreign visits are not essential in a globalised economy. Negotiations and consultations are an intrinsic part of bilateral, multilateral and international ecosystems. But sundry inconsequential visits are a problem. The ministry of finance and the cabinet secretariat have put limits on the number and duration of visits. Since visits abroad entail spending precious foreign exchange, secretaries have been directed to be strict in sanctioning them and to use our permanent missions abroad to represent the country instead. Sadly, these directions are rarely heeded.

The urge to go on foreign trips is endemic. Proposals for deputation abroad are immaculately crafted and processed with such speed that it could easily give a lie to the putative snail-pace of the Indian bureaucracy. It admits  no restraint, no shame, no twinge of conscience —  indeed, the tenacity is admirable. The urge to go abroad is rather natural, flowing from an immutable human impulse —  obsessive hedonistic individualism.

Let’s accept reality. The standards of financial propriety enjoined on public servants —  to exercise the same vigilance with public money as a person of ordinary prudence would with his own —  are rarely met. It is disturbing when proponents of a junket suggest that the extant orders be rewritten so that no questions are asked about their trips. I have even known an officer to travel abroad 60-odd times in three years, against the prescribed 12 (four per annum), spending about two-thirds of his time, excluding travel time, abroad.

There are wheels within wheels in foreign junkets. For instance, when economising measures were taken for domestic travel (officers who were earlier eligible for executive class travel now had to travel economy), the measures for international travel were only symbolic. Those eligible to travel first class (secretaries and above) were downgraded to business class, while those eligible to travel business (joint and additional secretaries) and economy class remained unaffected. The one good economising measure was that the tickets had to be bought at the lowest fare in the class. This brought an end to the free companion ticket facility. I myself insisted on the lowest fare rule and was staggered by the stout resistance and fusillade of bad logic trotted out against it.

The impulse to travel using government money when sponsorship from international agencies is available has assumed alarming proportions. All because officials are allowed to travel business class. It matters little that such acts mean the wanton depletion of taxpayer money. So, officials should live by the following rules: Thou shalt not covet foreign visits except those that are most necessary, unavoidable, inescapable, thou shalt not manufacture foreign jaunts through specious logic or spend all thy office hours coveting such excursions; instead, thou shall devote all thy time and energy to the job at hand, which thou as public servant art solemnly sworn to perform and art being paid handsomely, with all attendant perks, to do.

Doing this is rather easy. All it needs is undoing the blatant wrong perpetrated by the Sixth Pay Commission. While for domestic travel, the daily allowance was done away with by the commission and replaced by the reimbursement of food bills, the same logic wasn’t invoked for foreign visits, which continue with the per diem allowance. Consequently, foreign jaunts are an easy way to earn non-taxable dollars. Rectifying this egregious error, say, through a travel card (with limits), shall demonetise and cap the urge to seek out foreign safaris. It’s likely that restless minds will be stilled (due to the lack of possibilities) and their extra time made available to their work in office. It shall verily amount to putting the internal moral compass (ever so artificially, though) in the right place.

Given the prime minister’s emphasis on minimum government and maximum governance, and his firm commitment to transparency, one would suggest that there is also a dire need to rid the system of nepotism, and establish an arm’s-length and merit-based system instead. It needs to be remembered that networkers are not-workers. Because at the end of a long, arduous, networked day, they are far too mentally fatigued and physically drained to perform their assigned tasks.

Though a tad off-centre, I would like to sign off with a bit of mirth to lift the spirit of unrelieved pessimism by recalling Eugene McCarthy’s wry words: “The only thing that saves us from the bureaucracy is inefficiency. An efficient bureaucracy is the greatest threat to liberty.” How ironic and predictable. And yet another cause, however small, for gratitude.

The writer is additional secretary, ministry of environment and forests
express@expressindia.com

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