The Centre made it easier for bureaucrats to travel on overseas junkets by international agencies a week after banning foreign-funded consultants in ministries, a move that may defeat the government’s purpose of lessening outside influence on policy.
A memorandum on processing foreign-travel visits of government officers for approval of Screening Committee of Secretaries, issued on January 5 by the finance ministry, approved government officers travelling on internationally-funded junkets “where there is no particular Government of India business” as long as they took leave and treated it as a personal visit.
“The memo allows bureaucrats to accept junkets from the very agencies that the government doesn’t want paying consultants offering logistic support to ministries,” says a government officer, who did not want to be named.
The order widens the scope for bureaucrats to travel on junkets in their private capacity, which was allowed only “to participate in workshop/conference/study tours/presentation of papers etc abroad”, said a finance ministry memo dated October 27, 2008.
These specific categories have been done away with in the new memo, which was issued a week after the government banned consultants paid by international agencies from continuing after completing three years.
Only visits of officers of the rank of additional secretary and above require approval from the screening committees of secretaries.
“This order reiterates traditional practice while doing away with processing from multilevel agencies, as typically overseas travel for officers is processed at multiple levels, such as the state governments, personnel, and the concerned ministries, among others,” said AN Tiwari, former chief information commissioner and secretary, department of personnel & training.
The government pays for travel for state visits, bilaterals and negotiations, and sometimes accepts travel and hospitality from the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund or such agencies that invite concerned ministries, which then nominates someone.
“Personal invitations are frowned upon,” said a former secretary-level bureaucrat.
“Such circulars are issued to discourage officers from soliciting invitations, which can compromise India’s positions on negotiations and bilaterals. This memo ensures the necessary permissions are taken and India’s views are properly represented and there is no direct benefit to anybody,” said former Cabinet secretary BK Chaturvedi.
The ‘foreign hand’ is an easy bogey to create, say some. “How can it be okay to accept international funding to eradicate polio, immunise children and control HIV but not to allow them to pay consultants working on these projects,” said a former health secretary, who did not want to be named.
He agreed that the two orders didn’t tally but cautioned that nothing sinister should be read into bureaucrats being allowed to accept hospitality. “Bureaucrats get many opportunities to travel overseas and don’t need a foreign sponsor,” he said.