PUNJAB has banned beacons on government vehicles and put a two-year moratorium on state-funded foreign travel for its ministers as part of a raft of measures to end VIP culture, an age-old tradition now deeply entrenched in Indian daily life.
The decision, part of a campaign pledge on austerity, was reached during the maiden Cabinet meeting of Punjab’s new Congress government under Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh.
According to India Times, beacons will only be allowed on emergency service vehicles like ambulances and fire brigades, and on the cars of the Chief Justice and judges of the Punjab and the Haryana High Court.
— Government of Punjab (@PunjabGovtIndia) March 18, 2017
Foreign travel on state expense will be banned entirely for two years for both ministers and members of the legislative assembly (MLAs), unless mandated by the government.
The government will also no longer foot the bill for banquets and dinners, except for events held in honour of India’s president, vice-president, prime minister, speaker, state governors and other visiting foreign dignitaries.
Under other austerity measures, the administration also agreed that all salaries, allowances or reimbursements received by MLAs should be listed and updated monthly on the official government website for public scrutiny.
The Cabinet directed state representatives to declare their immovable properties every year on Jan 1 and that for the 2017-2018 period, the declarations would have to be done by July 1 this year.
According to Indian Express, the Cabinet also agreed to do away with the practice of laying foundation stones for the inauguration of a public project.
“The protocol of laying foundation stones and inaugurations by legislators and ministers would be clearly defined and laid down, ensuring respect for all citizens.
“Only the president of India, vice president of India, Speaker Lok Sabha, union Cabinet ministers, chief minister, Speaker of Punjab Vidhan Sabha and the state Cabinet ministers were entitled to lay foundation stones in Punjab,” a government spokesman was quoted saying.
Speaking to the daily, Finance Minister Manpreet Singh Badal said, “If anybody else wants to lay a foundation stone, he will have to mention ‘project inaugurated with taxpayers’ money’.”
On reimbursements of medical expenses for MLAs, ministers, ex-ministers and the chief minister, the Punjab administration said all claims should now be covered under medical and health insurance. This is to help minimise the government’s financial burden.
In India, politicians and bureaucrats are given privileges unheard of by civil servants in many other countries. From private lounges and special counters at airports and railway stations to cushioned seats in specially-cordoned off sections in concerts or other events, India’s elite class get it all.
In fact, so deeply coveted is the “VIP status” that many view it as a way to separate the rich and famous from the country’s poorer, “second class” citizens.
And it’s not just the politicians, too.
“Whether it’s our politicians, elite businessmen, sports personalities – the VIP culture that exists in our country has become a rogue and guess what, it’s rising like never before,” journalist Maninder Dabas wrote in an India Times article in January.
According to Maninder, India’s list of VIPs (persons with security detail) has crossed the 450 mark, a number significantly higher than most countries. Britain, for example, has 84 such VIPs, France has 109, Japan 125, Germany 142, Australia 205, the United States 252, and South Korea 312.
China, however, is not far behind India, the writer said, with 435 designated VIPs.
He claimed apart from the lavish lifestyles they lead, India’s VIPs also get special treatment from the country’s security forces. He said although there is one policeman for every 253 Indians, when it comes to the VIPs, one individual gets to enjoy protection from at least 17 policemen.
“Going purely by the numbers, one can easily assess the security of people is being compromised at the cost of keeping our VIPs safe,” he wrote.
The same complaint has been heard before.
Last August, a photograph of an Indian minister dressed in clean white slacks being carried by policemen through floodwaters (see featured photo) became the subject of intense ridicule on social media both in India and around the world.
— Friends of Congress (@friendscongress) August 23, 2016
— DailyO (@DailyO_) August 22, 2016
— ATM (@arvindtm) August 22, 2016
The minister was Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Madya Pradesh’s chief minister, and he was at the time visiting areas hit by major floods that led to thousands displaced and even deaths. The minister’s office tried to temper the situation later by claiming the police officials had to carry him because “he had trouble walking after his foot hit a hard object in the mud.”
But with Punjab’s latest decision, it appears as if India might be ready for a cultural shift. Although it remains the only state so far to do away with beacons on government vehicles, the pledge to abandon India’s VIP culture had been part of Congress’ polls manifesto.
Congress, or the Indian National Congress – one of two major political parties in India – currently rules seven states in India.