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Don't the babus need a phoren summer break?

By Kanika Datta
May 26, 2017 09:59 IST
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Codgers on holiday in rising India! Growing foreign travel is one sign of the radical change in rising India’s vacation dynamic.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com.
Sketch by Uttam Ghosh

As scorching temperatures empty India’s cities, the emerging rich, ordinary rich and seriously rich engage in the gentle snobbery of overseas destination shopping, the level of exotica marking the distinction between sophisticate and arriviste.

Growing foreign travel is only one sign of the radical change in rising India’s vacation dynamics.

The narrowing gap between private sector and government in the fine art of vacationing is the other prominent shift, and no one has been more influential here than Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
 
Executive vacation was a rare concept until the growing multinational presence in India imported the notion of “work-life balance”. This largely means that executives get to sequester a chunk of time specifically for a vacation -- instead of sneaking time out from an overseas business trip with family tagged along.   
 
Gone, therefore, is the routine envy accorded to government servants and bureaucrats, who miraculously discovered vital business involving the world’s largest democracy in foreign climes as the temperature neared the 40s. The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in some salubrious outpost of Britain’s former empire has been the jewel in this official vacation crown.
 
It escaped no one that a biennial meeting between the heads of governments of rising powers and the rapidly declining former colonial overlord -- all accompanied by vast staffs -- was a pretty useless exercise. Not for nothing did a wag attach a different long-form label to CHOGM:  Codgers on Holiday on Government Money.
 
But beyond CHOGM, the scope for official overseas trips was vast. Ingenuity played a key role. Some bureaucrats and MPs in a nineties regime were missing from their respective bhavans because they were on an official trip to the West Indies to study -- wait for it -- the spread of Hindi in the region.
 
An austerity programme after the 2008 global financial crisis put paid to the more bizarre overseas trips but did not staunch the appetite for domestic breaks at taxpayer expense. In 2012, when the Indian economy was struggling, India Today published a report on how MPs on parliamentary panels blowing up crores on “study tours”.

Here are some of the more egregious examples. A coal ministry study to Leh in June, 2012. Two tours in 2011 by current speaker Sumitra Mahajan, then on a rural development panel, to major cities in the north and south with stays in five star hotels ended with a bill of Rs 16.9 lakh.
 
Like his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, Mr Modi does not take vacations -- a fact his staff is proud to highlight. Many unkind comments about his vigorously publicised foreign travel in his initial months in charge caused him to cut back. As for CHOGM, Mr Modi also eschewed attendance at the 2015 meeting in Malta because of the Indian government’s disagreement on the line on climate change.

Ironically, the 2017 meet in Vanuatu was cancelled because of cyclone damage in that tiny country (a climate change impact if there ever was one). And British Prime Minister Teresa May has extended him a personal invitation to the 2018 meet in the UK (would it be worth the trouble in a Brexit world?)  
 
Mr Modi’s workaholic proclivities make it incumbent on ministers in his government to follow suit. Last year, he put in some tougher guidelines limiting travel by bureaucrats -- foreign trips only four times a year, for instance, subject to authorisation by a committee of secretaries, among other things.
 
Small wonder, then, that central bureaucrats are urgently requesting postings back to their home cadres. For the states remain decidedly relaxed on the question of taxpayer-funded foreign tours.

West Bengal’s Jyoti Basu set the trend long ago; after the Left Front government agreed on the criticality of foreign investment, he infallibly headed UK- or US-ward each summer, though the bulk of interest came from Malaysia and Indonesia and from within India.

This year, NDTV broke news of a 16-member team of Maharashtra legislators heading to Australia and New Zealand, with a one-day stop in Singapore, for a study tour on drought management.
 
At Rs 6 lakh a head, free meals and provision for one companion, you do wonder at the sheer insensitivity of this plan in a state where farmers have suffered so much hardship -- and many have died -- on this account. A trip to neighbouring Gujarat, where Israeli technology and drip irrigation have transformed the landscape, would have been immeasurably more useful.
 
But, then, when India’s new rich are cavorting in the moneyed playgrounds of the world, is it practical to expect public servants to toil in the heat and dust at home?

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Kanika Datta
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