Trimming Expensive Overheads

We already have a Presidential Office with massive costs. It is certainly more shocking that a relatively decorative Presidency should be doubled down by an even more vacuous office – that of a full-time Vice-Presidency, with similar privileges and still less responsibilities

By Jan Arden

There are renewed calls these days that our public and political overheads should be seriously reviewed and trimmed down, some arguing for the election of an “assemblée constituante” to review either the Republic concocted in haste in the early nineties or the Constitution our departing colonial masters left us in 1968. The accumulated experience will have highlighted some of its features that have proved essential to avoid a drift to authoritarianism. The constitutional independence of the Office of the DPP, which the incoming government in 2015 was intent on ring-fencing under manifestly indefensible pretexts, is a case in point. Those and other posts whose independence from political overlordship or pressures, are of such vital importance for our continued future sustainability that ways and means to strengthen them should be the order of day.

Sadly, but somewhat fortuitously, recent experience has also glaringly revealed structural weaknesses and flaws in our constitutional make-up and the appointment processes of political nominees at key posts, that savvy and experienced heads in Opposition parties would, we trust, be studying closely.

The tip of the iceberg, one could argue, are State overheads.

We already have a Presidential Office with massive costs, lifetime perks and privileges but with the barest of representation duties and responsibilities. Their status is equally unclear: should they, on vacating the prestigious post, enjoy retirement benefits and renew with active politics? While a former President should without doubt enjoy some publicly-funded financial freedom, the scale of such generosity can be easily trimmed down without looking miserly.

Be that as it may, it is certainly more shocking that a relatively decorative Presidency should be doubled down by an even more vacuous office designated in the 1990s backrooms – that of a full-time Vice-Presidency, with similar privileges and still less responsibilities. We have enough alternatives to fill in on the rare occasions when the incumbent is unfit or on an a planned and approved overseas travel mission, to do away entirely with that exemplar of top-heavy lifestyles of our political class.

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When will Health be checked?

The pandemic was certainly not expected to rock the planet and drag our public health services through the most trying episodes for two years. We have utmost respectfor the valiant efforts of competent medical and support staff, often at personal and family risks, working in all our public health institutions.

While we were all coping as best we could under lockdowns and red zones, it would seem that some top-level administrative and technical personnel had been gnawing awayat emergency procurement contracts since early 2020, as the Minister has implied. The report of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), out on this Wednesday, appears to have slammed those responsible for the malign happenings at Health and through the State Trading Corporation in no uncertain terms.

Having gone through the traumas of the Covid-19 pandemic as a nation, can we expect more energetic inquiries on the procurement front that have had hit the headlines, even after the corrupt Pack & Blister saga should have required far greater caution? Where does the buck end its inglorious travels? The sickening Molnupiravir saga, we recall, is still unresolved and we need not go into further details here, if not to note that dozens of patients have reported on air lately, being denied that treatment pill. Would that be a case of the drug being already out of stock at public hospitals?

Have the highest Health levels, should that be deemed necessary by ICAC, been officially auditioned under caution? Why have inquiries stalled wonders the population? Times and expectations are evolving, demands for greater transparency and accountability can, at the authorities’ own risk, be dismissed.

We can understand that there may be names in the Fact-Finding Committee, chaired by the respected former Judge Deviyanee Beesoondoyal, on the suspicious and shocking series of Covid-related deaths at the Souillac hospital, transformed in a national Renal Dialysis Centre. That distress of patients and parents had former No 2 in government, Ivan Collendavelloo, to a strong public indictment while those who had no other choice were apprehensive about of what they believed could be their final trip.

Even if transparency may have legal issues, there are easy ways to address privacy concerns of patients, who have been waiting for closure of those traumas. It would be in the public interest that the authorities do not give the impression of continuing to sanction an absence of accountability at Health by sitting on the Fact-Finding Committee report or through the setting up of a new medical Committee. This sounds like an outrage for all who suffered, including medical personnel and staff, from the dialysis disaster. In that same vein, why can’t the population be treated with some more respect by making public a summary of where our famous “Rs 2 tax on fuel for vaccines” have been spent?

Absence of transparency and lack of accountability, even in some reported medical negligence cases, leave room for sometimes unwarranted suspicion.Our Health services, traditionally respected, should not be suspected of being addicted to unhealthy and non-transparentpractices at high echelons.

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Electoral Pledges and Promises

Is the Aam Aadmi Party’s Delhi electoral campaign model sustainable nationwide, query some Indian observers, when it is based on the twin pivots of clean governance and a plateful of outright populist campaign promises offered to the voters? True, it may not have been the first to adopt such populism through pre-electoral promises, and some will recall older days of Tamil Nadu politics.

In Punjab, the Sikh-based Akali Dal and Congress have dominated the scene based on similar bamboozling promises which the two parties, alternating in office, then tried to fulfill, mostly unsatisfactorily for a variety of reasons, if only gluttony, corruption of processes and lack of funds from the public purse.

Ballooning public debt of the State (almost 40% of state revenues this year would go to debt servicing!) and disappointment with non-working populist schemes of both parties may have led the electorate to massively vote for AAP, on the basis of ‘let’s try the new guy’ and his own plateful of earthen promises: Rs1000 to all adult women, free and regular power to lower income households and the setting up of a number of hospitals, medical and further education colleges, public sector jobs for youths, and the list goes on.

There are only a few ways for the incoming Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwat Mann to deliver on those promises: seriously curtail government wastes and unnecessary expenditures, expand the economic base of an essentially agrarian state, increase further the already high level of state borrowings or increase tax rates or the tax base. Those will be the uphill challenges for AAP to show some results with 2024 in sight nationally.

At the end of the day, only the most naive would believe that the population won’t be made to contribute or pay for the proffered “gratis”, the populist promises made in the exuberance of high-octane campaigning, irrespective of political parties. We have known such booming “gratis” promises here too and no doubt elsewhere in the world. We know what theirimplementation is costing the taxpayer and the consumers now and what burden future generations will have to bear through soaring public debts and the continued expansive public lifestyles of today.

* Published ePaper on 18 March 2022

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