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Ministers' study tours cost the nation dearly

Monday, May 19, 2014

RTI queries reveal that despite the nation reeling under a financial crisis, year after year, ministers continue to embark upon overseas ‘study’ junkets, writes Gajanan Khergamker

While the country reeled under a financial crunch year after year - cost cutting drives, employees being laid off from jobs, a dip in employment rate and inflation in every sector becoming a norm– the country’s Members of Legislative Council (MLCs) didn’t seem like they cared. Busy with their pleasure trips overseas camouflaged as study tours, the ministers have been squandering public wealth.

It isn’t the first time that reports suggest MLAs and MLCs undertake unwarranted pleasure trips in the name of study tours. In fact, in the past couple of years, there has been more news of MLAs and MLCs taking pleasure trips than of them doing any work.

In April, yet another reply to an RTI application, filed by an activist, indicated that no matter what the financial state of the country, ministers won’t stop fleecing the exchequer.

According to information procured from an RTI application filed in January this year, the previous BJP government conducted as many as two study tours to Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Netherlands, Austria and Dubai. These trips cost the exchequer a total of Rs nine crore, which included Rs. 1,99,82,658 that was incurred by officials accompanying members of committees.

Of the 14 Legislature committees, only three never took part in any foreign tours. And, among the 11 committees that took part in the study-tours, four committees are yet to submit a report to the Speaker about their findings on the study tour.

Dr C Nithyananda Pai, the RTI activist who had sought information like - details on the foreign tours, members who took part in the jaunts, copies of study-tour reports and projects, schemes or best practices that were implemented in the state based on the recommendations of these reports - was informed that none of the recommendations submitted by these member of committee were adopted by the State.

Apparently, the reports that these members of legislature committee submitted were on par with reports ‘written by school children.’ Like for instance, a report by a committee revealed that the Leaning Tower of Pisa’s tilt is at 0.04 degrees and would crash one day. The committee was oblivious to the fact that the tower was straightened by 16 inches and would not crash for the next 300 years.

Dakshina Kannada district-in-charge Minister B Ramanath Rai, after visiting Europe observed in the report that ‘people in India, like the UK, should stop expecting everything for free.’

Another legislative team had recommended constructing a railway station in the Himalayas on the lines of Jungfraujoch (Europe’s highest railway station) to attract more tourists.

This startling observation was made after the committee made a trip to Europe.

According to guidelines, the number of officials accompanying (Legislature committee) members should not exceed more than three persons.

But, in the 2013 jaunt, seven officials, including personal assistant of the speaker and deputy speaker had accompanied the members.

Most of the reports submitted by different committees, on almost similar lines, suggested civic discipline, good public transport, scientific waste management, attractive parks among others. And, reportedly, none of the recommendations made by the committees was implemented.

In January earlier this year, a 30-member Karnataka Legislators’ delegation undertook a study tour to three Latin American countries for 15 days to ‘study the waterfalls in the Amazon forests and sporting activity.’

This was after a delegation that had gone on a study tour to Australia, New Zealand and Fiji came back and reported, that while on the trip they got to study that ‘cows graze in open land.’

And that was not it, the members also learnt how ‘cherry juice was made’ while on this trip and suggested a similar model for Karnataka to boost tourism.
Other very knowledgeable things that the group studied were – toilets on the highway are needed, tree-felling has a negative impact on the environment, there is no caste system there and people are more disciplined in these countries.

This ‘keen observation’ made by the MLAs cost the exchequer crores too.

Another RTI application filed earlier in February 2014 revealed that former Punjab deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal, splurged on public money to watch London Olympics in July, 2012.

According to information procured through the RTI application, accompanied by two members from his office and former Indian hockey team captain Pargat Singh, Mr Badal, spent a week in the British capital as part of a ‘study tour’ that was sponsored by Punjab Sports Council.

Reply to a RTI query revealed that Rs. 32.44 lakh was spent on this week-long trip. Apparently, the amount was underwritten by the Punjab Sports Council and the report that he was supposed to submit after the ‘study tour’ to the Council, was not submitted. The stated aim of the trip was to examine latest sports technologies so as to implement them in his home state.

The four-member team travelled business class and incurred an expenditure of Rs 4.92 lakh for their three-day stay in the Hotel Marriot in the British capital.
Another Rs 16.75 lakh was paid for a three-day package. That apart, Mr Badal was also offered Rs 1.25 lakh as pocket money for each day.

Last year too, a minister was seen squandering the exchequers’ money.

When the airline services, in the country, private or otherwise were going through a bad patch, so much so that Air India’s employees had gone on a strike for delay in payment of salaries, former Aviation Minister, Ajit Singh had sent invitations to many journalists asking them to join him on his trip to the US where he was going to take the delivery of first Boeing 787 jets.

Invitations were sent to various media organisations via e-mail by the aviation minister, asking to join him in his visit to Seattle and Charlston, USA, from May 28 – 31, 2013 to get delivery of B787 Dreamliner and that their travel, accommodation, etc., will be taken care of. After this was reported, the trip was first postponed before being finally cancelled.

Former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh was the chairman of the Planning Commission while Montek Singh Ahluwalia was the Deputy Chairman.
Ironically, both have been accused of splurging.

It was in 2012 that an RTI application filed by journalist Shyamlal Yadav revealed that Montek Singh Ahluwalia spent around Rs 2.02 lakh daily (average) expenditure for trips between May and October 2011.

According to information procured through the RTI. Ahluwalia undertook ‘four trips covering 18 nights that cost the exchequer a total of Rs 36,40,140 on an average of Rs 2.02 lakh a day.

This was revealed at a time when the Tendulkar Committee evaluated the country’s poverty line in 2012 and emerged with a report which suggested a rural Indian spending Rs 22.50 and an urban Indian spending Rs 29 a day were not considered poor.

An RTI application made around the time the Planning Commission came up with its poverty report revealed that Dr. Manmohan Singh had hosted a gala party, on the three-year completion of UPA’s second term, in which dinner cost approximately Rs 8,000 per person. This, according to the Planning Commission, would suffice to feed a family of five in a rural area for an entire two months!  

That apart, apparently Rs 624 crore was spent on former PM’s air-travel in nine years. Dr. Singh undertook 67 trips since 2004 when he took over as PM, of which bills of five weren’t received.

The bills received from the rest 62 visits show that Rs 642.45 crore was spent on air travel.

So, while the common man keeps struggling with inflation in probably every sector, ministers and government officials have no qualms while lavishly spending the common man’s hard-earned taxes.

nd, especially for something as insignificant as getting media coverage for their so-called ‘achievements’ like buying aircrafts from the US, at a time when they cannot afford to pay the staff their salaries on time; and, not to mention the ‘studying’ that was done on the many trips enjoyed by the MLAs and MLCs.

Hopefully, with a new government in place, things will change for the better.

(With inputs from Prerna Pandey)

Lavish dinners, tours et al
MLAs tour despite riot
http://youtu.be/N1fMMi79GbM

Study tour was 'fun trip'
http://youtu.be/xg-0mOXeKuU

Samba, tango on study tour
http://youtu.be/PWS-ehpYL5s

18 countries in 8 days
http://youtu.be/LjYZbnao22s

Readers keen on seeking help on drafting RTI applications may write in to rti@draftcraft.in or call Gajanan Khergamker on 022-22841593 for any assistance on RTI or to have their findings / issue featured on this page

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