Get ready to pay — once again — for the foreign jaunts of the spouses of India’s globetrotting bureaucrats.
The government has brought back a rule allowing bureaucrats to take ‘free companion tickets’ from airlines such as Air India when they travel abroad to attend conferences, workshops or meetings in their official capacity.
“Government servants shall be allowed to avail the facility of free companion tickets offered by the airlines for international travel only,” a memo by Simmi R. Nakra, director, Department of Personnel and Training, said last week.
This reversed last year’s bar on officials making use of the free companion tickets facility.
The October 2008 bar was inspired by the Sixth Pay Commission report that frowned upon babudom quietly making official tours “a source of profit”.
Airlines such as Air India offer free companion tickets only when customers buy full-fare tickets, not tickets that are sold on discounts.
They give bureaucrats an incentive to buy a full-fare ticket if he or she intends to take the spouse along.
Many bureaucrats do, spending taxpayers’ money to buy full-fare tickets — say, a first-class ticket on the Delhi-New York sector for Rs 3.52 lakh, when a discounted ticket is available for Rs 1.84 lakh.
And they travel a lot. Last year, an RTI application had revealed that in three and a half years, officials travelled 5.65 crore km — over 70 times a round trip to the moon, which is 3.84 lakh km away.
Officials at the department of expenditure, that controls the government’s purse strings, acknowledged the relaxation in rules had their approval.
Seven months ago, the department had ordered ministries to negotiate incentives with airlines in a way “that the benefits come to the government”.
“The free companion scheme was reviewed at the request of the civil aviation ministry” where official business often involves international travel, an expenditure department official said.
Civil aviation secretary M. Madhavan Nambiar, for instance, is currently in the US.
The only time the government has had some anxious moments over the squandering of public money was about six years ago.
The Congress, then in the opposition, had complained that senior home ministry officials accompanying then deputy prime minister L.K. Advani on a trip abroad had taken their wives along.
Former railway minister Lalu Prasad had some uneasy moments last week when news got out that he had gifted himself free railway passes. But he is not the only one.
In 1996, the Railway Board had given retired board members and their spouses a life-time First-Class AC train pass, waiving a charge that had to be paid till then.
Also in 1996, babus got air-conditioned cars for secretary-level officers on the ground that “protocol and representations obligations” often required them to wear formal clothes “which makes travel onerous in the absence of air conditioners”.
Two years earlier, they had pushed through a rule that allowed secretary-rank bureaucrats to use their official cars for private purposes up to 500 km on the payment of a nominal fee.