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Austerity flushed down

Anjana Menon  |  New Delhi 

The which, for many years, has had a hard time justifying its true role, has just earned its stripes. It has finally taught India “how to spend it”.

In an embarrassing revelation, it has emerged that the body that is responsible for planning a better quality of life for Indians can claim credit for successfully doing so for itself. It spent an eye-popping Rs 30 lakh on renovating two toilet blocks even as the government raised the allocation limit for building rural toilets to Rs 10,000 each. The Planning Commission may just have flushed away the moral clout to plan spending in a country where a sizeable population still defecates in the open.

Those defending the commission and indeed its deputy chairman have said that the money was spent for better public facilities and that it is an orchestrated witch-hunt against a future finance ministerial candidate. Roughly, that public good translates into sixty smart card-holders who were initially allocated use of the toilets. It also transpires that the poorly planned smart cards were later abandoned.

That notwithstanding, it has been argued that it is harsh to turn the spotlight on Ahluwalia who has contributed heavily to India’s economic reform policies and is widely seen as a confidante of the Prime Minister.

That is indeed where the problem lies with the seemingly extravagant spending. By not raising an eyebrow over the hefty tag, and indeed other large bills such as the approximately Rs 2 lakh per day on overseas trips, Ahluwalia seems to be straying from the issue that his boss, the Prime Minster, has so vehemently spoken out against — conspicuous consumption.

Back in 2007, when Indian companies were on a roll, cautioned against the vulgar display of wealth and said that it could create resentment with the have-nots.

In a 10-point agenda for inclusive growth he laid out, “If those who are better off do not act in a more socially responsible manner, our growth process may be at risk, our polity may become anarchic and our society may get further divided.”

Several members in the industry argued that Singh was out of line in suggesting how privately earned money should be spent and he should stick to how the government spends its money.

Some five years later it may be time for public officials to look inwards. There is little to suggest that members of the Planning Commission can’t be classified, in Singh’s words, as those who are “better off”. They have as much a responsibility to present a picture of prudent spending as India’s business big-wigs.

So, when Ahluwalia fails to clamp down on a big spending at the body he heads, even though it may be within budgeted limits, the perception that builds is that the Planning Commission may be breaking away from the government’s stated austerity philosophy. That’s a trap that should have been avoided by the government body and especially by someone who has all the credentials to be India’s future finance minister.

The case for justifying the spending becomes even more untenable because it is public money that should have been spent in a more socially responsible way. To the common man it represents the same kind of public money that the Commission is responsible for allocating prudently.

In his 2007 speech on austerity, the Prime Minister said, “We must end forever the debate whether our country’s march of progress has benefited India and not Bharat. India is Bharat.”

Bharat, though, it seems is spending only Rs 10,000 on each household’s loo.

Anjana Menon is a Delhi-based business writer. You can send your comments to

First Published: Sat, June 09 2012. 00:28 IST