Air India is broke, but the Modi government still owes it Rs 325 crore for the PM’s foreign visits between November 2016 and February 2018.
New Delhi: Despite his push for a Digital India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems unable to change the sluggish pace of bureaucracy in his own office. The PMO website carries a list of 36 foreign trips Modi has made from June 2014 to February 2018 (including visits to multiple countries on the same trip); yet the details of the PM’s last 10 visits either show bills ‘under process’ or ‘bills not received’.
According to the government’s response to an RTI application filed by activist Commodore Lokesh Batra (retd) regarding the status of these pending transactions, the PMO received the bills for two of these trips – to Japan in November 2016 and to Sri Lanka in May 2017 – over five months ago.
“The said bills were forwarded by DCP(C), MEA and received in this Office on 31.07.2017 and 14.09.2017 respectively,” the response, accessed by ThePrint, reads. The PMO received the five of the remaining bills as recently as 27 February 2018.
Another nail in AI’s coffin
All this means delays in payments to the national carrier, Air India, from which the government charters the Air India One VIP flights. The airline has been ailing for the last two decades, with losses running into several hundred crores, and according to responses received to Batra’s other RTIs, the government still owes it Rs 325.81 crore, as of 31 January 2018.
In 2016 alone, the government spent Rs 393 crore on VVIP chartered flights for the PM’s foreign visits.
The expenses incurred on prime ministerial travels are met out of the budget head ‘Cabinet Ministers — Maintenance of PM’s aircraft — Other charges’, under Demand No.47, listed under ‘demands for grants’ under the finance division of the union home ministry.
The costs for the President’s travels are borne by the defence ministry, while the ministry of external affairs budgets the Vice President’s trips.
Whither ‘minimum government, maximum governance’?
Digital India has been one of Modi’s major focus areas since before he became PM — he not only promised to propel India into a state of advanced technological development and transform citizens’ lives through increased accessibility and innovation, but used the phrase ‘minimum government, maximum governance’. Simply put, this meant cutting through the bureaucratic red tape that was often cited as one of India’s biggest problems.
But red tapism still seems to be all around the PMO – while budgetary estimates and actual expenditure on the PM’s travels are available on the MHA and PMO websites, no explanations regarding pending payments or the 10 bills ‘in process’ are provided. Nor are any officers listed as contact persons in case any information or clarifications are required.
The Web Information Officer for the PM’s official website was not in his office until noon, and a different department’s number was provided, which in turn provided the number of the PMO’s administration department.
An official at this department told ThePrint that he was not certain who handled the budgeting for the PM’s trips, or those of his cabinet ministers. “Must be the ministries themselves,” he said. He also said he did not possess any way to contact the office in the Prime Minister’s house, which he “thinks are the people that probably do it. But we don’t handle it”.
The biggest irony of the PM’s Digital India actually comes from the ministry of home affairs website. It continues to display an advertisement for the ‘Launch of Digital India Week’ by the Prime Minister — on 1 July 2015.
No right to information?
As recently as last month, the Central Information Commission (CIC) intervened to direct the external affairs ministry to disclose relevant information about the cost of the PM’s foreign travels to Batra, who had felt compelled to approach the CIC after receiving incomplete information from the relevant ministries.
Asked about his crusade to collect information on the expenses of the PM’s travels, Batra said: “I don’t let them rest on these things as it involves huge tax-payer’s money. As of 31 January 2018, the PM’s expenses alone add up to an amount of Rs 128 crore, which does not even include the bills not yet processed.”
He hit out at the criticism of Air India from government circles. “They have no business to criticise the airline when they themselves are not paying their bills,” he said.