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How Obama bill added up to ‘$200 mn’

It was the speculation and gossip indulged in by some senior Maharashtra government officials,combined with the over-enthusiasm of a section of the media in Mumbai.

Written by Archna Shukla | New Delhi |
November 21, 2010 12:23:53 am

It was the speculation and gossip indulged in by some senior Maharashtra government officials,combined with the over-enthusiasm of a section of the media in Mumbai,that resulted in the exaggerated news reports that said US President Barack Obama’s trip to India was costing Washington $200 million a day.

The reports found their way into the American media and triggered a furore among political analysts and bloggers. The Opposition Republicans latched on to the number and slammed Obama for what they said was “over-the-top-spending” amid the continued economic woes of the US though the White House maintained that the amount was “wildly inflated” and “simply not true”.

The controversy prompted CNN journalist Anderson Cooper to try and trace the origin of the information,according to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Cooper,Friedman wrote this week,found that the number travelled to the US in a November 2 report from Mumbai by the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency.

The Sunday Express has,however,found that the ball was set rolling a day earlier. Mumbai Mirror carried a report on November 1,detailing the arrangements for Obama’s two-day visit to Mumbai,and went on to add that the trip was likely to cost the US administration about $20 million a day.

The report quoted sources and unnamed officials,including one “involved with the President’s welcome”,as saying that Obama’s entourage included about 500 people and came with F-16 air cover and an aircraft carrier stationed off the Mumbai coast. It also listed the elaborate arrangements that were being made in the city for the first couple of the US and went on to estimate that all this would earn Mumbai $40 million over two days or Rs 192 crore.

It turns out that this number was not based on any calculation by the Maharashtra government or officials associated with the visit,let alone by the American side. In fact,it was mentioned as an off-the-cuff remark by a senior Mumbai IPS officer in an informal interaction with crime reporters to discuss the massive arrangements for the visit.

A day later,the $20 million number got multiplied many times over. A senior IAS officer who was supervising arrangements for the visit told some reporters — again in an informal conversation — that the visit could cost the US $200 million a day. PTI reported the information and said it was coming from a senior Maharashtra government official “privy to the arrangements of the high-profile visit”. The report said “the huge amount of around $200 million would be spent on security,stay and other aspects of the Presidential visit”.

What followed was a media and official frenzy,with some Indian and international media reproducing the PTI report or referring to it in related articles and the White House frantically denying it all.

PTI said it still stood by the November 2 report. “We have ascertained the identity of the officer in question. He is a very senior Maharashtra government official and there is no reason why he would try to mislead anybody,” said MK Razdan,editor-in-chief,PTI.

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