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The Great Austerity Drive

india Updated: Jun 14, 2008 22:28 IST
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These are purportedly the minutes of a meeting held to consider the government's austerity measures. The names of the parties involved have been kept a secret in order to protect their privacy and this columnist's health.

The Prime Minister announced that the meeting had been called to find ways and means to rescue the government’s finances from the mess they were in. Sympathetic noises followed. A very senior minister got up and ostentatiously switched off the airconditioner, while switching on the fan. A rival veteran minister switched off the fan and fanned himself with a government file. Other ministers called for files to be supplied.

The Cabinet secretary said they should not waste stationery. A junior minister suggested that the minutes of the meeting be written on a slate with chalk. Other ministers recommended following the procedure for all meetings. A proposal to drastically cut the number of cars in each minister’s official convoy was then accepted. An extremely senior minister said that Rahul Gandhi should have been invited to the meeting as he had the best ideas. Another minister suddenly looked perturbed and wondered whether the Left had been kept informed. An uncomfortable silence ensued, broken by the PM’s promise to send the minutes of the meeting to them.

An eccentric junior minister outlined a scheme whereby all the ministers and secretaries would stay in flats and their bungalows could then be sold to the highest bidder, bringing in thousands of crores of rupees. A lively debate ensued, with ministers pointing out that it would harm the environment if the bungalows were demolished. Everybody except eccentric junior minister agreed.

It was decided to cut all foreign travel to the minimum and ministers were advised to go for only very important foreign visits. All agreed that travel within the country would be unrestricted, as everybody had to concentrate on political work. An elder statesman said that now that the topic of political work had come up, how was the farm debt waiver scheme progressing? A junior secretary said the total cost to the government would be Rs 71,680 crore and wondered how that hole would be filled. Senior secretary frowned and admonished him, pointing out that he was not paying attention, as they had just talked about a number of schemes to save money.

A chief minister said that while on the subject of politics, he wanted to share a foolproof way of winning the next state elections by promising a colour TV and free electricity to everybody below the poverty line. A committee was set up to consider what other freebies the government could give.

At that moment, several flunkeys walked in with tea and snacks. Many ministers objected, saying they would have only samosas to save money. Others said that, as a special measure of austerity, only vada pav should be served at official meetings. A minister from the South demurred, saying that the damn thing was a gas bomb and they should have idlis instead. Veteran politician said Sitaram Yechury should be consulted before any decision was taken.

After tea, a senior minister said that with oil prices climbing through the roof, the government needed to issue several thousand crores more of oil bonds. A proposal not to purchase new furniture for government offices was accepted. The urgent need to give the Rs 30,000-crore Pay Commission hikes to government employees was underlined. A proposal to encourage ministers to reduce their phone bills was passed.

The eccentric junior minister wondered whether so many ministries and government departments were really needed. He said the Cabinets in many other countries were much smaller. A stunned silence followed, broken by a senior minister telling the eccentric minister he had been selected to go to Argentina for an important meeting. The consensus was that it was best to go by sea, in order to conserve money. The meeting then broke up to enable the eccentric minister to start preparing for the three-month-long journey. The junior secretary noted they had saved Rs 17.45p on the air-conditioning, Rs 5.20p on stationery, and Rs 121.75p on snacks during the meeting. Everybody cheered.

Manas Chakravarty is Consulting Editor, Mint

manas.c@livemint.com