Anyone with a daily consumption expenditure of Rs 28.35 and Rs 22.42 in urban and rural areas, respectively, is above the poverty line, ruled our very own Planning Commission in March. One could never have imagined it would be so easy to bring the teeming millions in the well-off sections of the society! In a single stroke, the panel brought millions of countrymen, struggling to ensure two square meals a day for themselves and their kin, above the poverty line. How ingenious!
One thing that accrued from the latest criteria for judging the poor was that India's BPL population showed an immediate decline, down 7.3% over the past five years of UPA rule. What Indira Gandhi's slogan of "Garibi hatao" in the 1970s could not do, PC (Planning Commission, not Priyanka Chopra or P Chidambaram) did in a jiffy. Now that is what I call quick thinking!
What PC simply meant was that under the dynamic leadership of Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and Pranab Mukherjee-not necessarily in that order-crores of Indians had been branded well-off overnight since they could now afford to live comfortably on less than Rs 30 a day. It's another matter that a kg of flour costs Rs 20, as does a kg of humble potatoes. But these minor details could surely be overlooked when one has on hand an onerous task of uplifting crores of Indians. Don't say you don't agree!
What got the goat of the groaning public was the revelation in an RTI query: PC had spent Rs 30 lakh on the renovation of two toilets at Yojana Bhawan. An additional Rs 5.19 lakh was spent on door access control system; meaning only 60 privileged PC officials with smart cards could use these swanky loos. "The cost of installation of door access control system is Rs 5,19,426. The cost of renovation of two toilets where the system is installed is Rs 30,00,305," the RTI reply said. How meticulous and conscientious Indian bureaucracy can be, keeping an account to the last penny spent!
All this swanky toilets business was for the convenience of foreign and other dignitaries visiting Yojana Bhawan, PC officials contended. One wonders if building swanky loos would leave a good and lasting impression about India on foreign dignitaries!
A newspaper also reported, on the basis of an RTI reply, that PC deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia incurred foreign travel expenses of a staggering Rs 2.02 lakh per day between May and October 2011! Another report said he undertook 42 official trips at a cost of Rs 2.34 crore. Ahluwalia later reportedly maintained that "foreign travels were necessary for discharge of official duties". Whatever that means!
While the entire country was still agonising over the exact number of poor people in India and the justifications offered for the Rs 35-lakh toilets, there was news about a Chandigarh businessman who successfully bid Rs 17 lakh for a vanity number for his SUV. He could have offered Rs 20 crore for the same, he said nonchalantly. Phew! Anyone living on Rs 28 per day would surely have revelled in the prosperity around him!