This is one high-flying government. In this globalised world, it is now in the nature of official business to travel to different parts of the earth making new friends, lesser enemies and influencing people.
As a rising economic power, it is perhaps more necessary than ever before to make your presence felt at global high tables and international conference podiums.
But even by that yardstick, the UPA Government would seem to be in an overdrive or rather turbo-charged, its ministerial representatives raking up frequent-flier miles at a frenetic pace, this, despite the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) supposedly cracking down on bureaucrats and ministers travelling abroad at the drop of a Gandhi topi.
Whether it's a case of Democracy on the Move or the New World Order, the perks of foreign travel have never been so widely utilised.
Consider this. In the 1,287 days of the UPA Government till November 30 last year, its ministers travelled an incredible 1 crore km (10 million km)-plus on trips abroad, official and personal, but mostly official.
It means that the ministers made more than 256 trips around the globe, considering the earth's circumference of 40,008 km. Among the 71 ministers (excluding the prime minister) who went on foreign trips during their tenure, 47 ministers spent over Rs 27 crore.
The bill would be much higher, taking into account the fact that the other ministers did not provide details of their expenditure. This, of course, does not include the expenses incurred by Indian embassies abroad which run up substantial bills hiring limousines and providing other services to visiting ministers.
At least 12 of the total 78 ministers travelled more than 2.5 lakh km each in the last three-and-a-half years.
Not that they did anything illegal or shady: none of the trips (we hope!) involved wives, mistresses or family shopping on Fifth Avenue at government (read public) expense.
They do, however, show that some ministers are literally higher than others. In fact, some spent more time abroad on personal trips than on official visits.
Using the Right To Information (RTI) procedure, India Today has obtained a detailed list of ministerial travel abroad during the UPA Government's tenure and it makes for fascinating reading.
It would have made better reading and comparative assessment if we had access to similar trips during the NDA regime too, but the almost 10 years that have passed since then meant that it was a far more laborious and timeconsuming process.
In any event, it took over four months and 59 RTI applications to various ministries apart from PMO and the Cabinet Secretariat, before the information could be compiled and made available. The air distances have been calculated in approximation.
Where the city was not mentioned, the distance from Delhi to the capital city of the destination country was considered. Expenses incurred were calculated on the basis of the per diem allowance that ministers are entitled to, since the RTI provided us information only about the number of trips and the number of days that each minister spent abroad.
Here are some highlights of foreign travel by the UPA ministers.
It may come as no great surprise but Commerce and Industry Minister Kamal Nath, last spotted in Davos, logged the maximum mileage on foreign trips and created some sort of a record in the bargain. (See graphic: Kamal Nath's trips abroad)
He spent 424 days on 72 trips outside the country, of which 27 days were spent on six personal visits. A cool 14 months spent outside India.
He covered 10,08,162 km up to November 30, 2007 (enough to earn frequent flier miles to make 20 free trips to the US and back, assuming he flew first class) and the Government spent Rs 1.81 crore on his official visits.
As commerce minister and head negotiator for India in the World Trade Organisation deliberations, he is obliged to travel abroad fairly frequently. And with trade and economic relations assuming far greater importance, he is more visible than the external affairs minister when the prime minister goes abroad as was the case recently in Beijing.
The cities he has visited most frequently, whether privately or on official work, are London, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, New York, Paris and Brussels. In comparison, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram spent a mere 118 days on overseas visits, for which the Government picked up a tab of Rs 1.45 crore.
High fliers I
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Minister of State (MOS) for Civil Aviation (independent charge) Praful Patel made 41 trips abroad of which 16 were official. He chose to visit the US six times and the UK five times, besides France and Belgium. (See graphic: Praful Patel's trips abroad)
Records show that the cities Patel visited most frequently in his personal capacity are London, Paris, New York, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Dubai.
However, being a businessman of some standing would explain why he spent more time abroad on personal visits in comparison to officialhe spent 125 days on personal visits and 57 days on official visits.
Patel, MOS for Human Resource Development M.A.A Fatmi and D. Purandeswari, Minister for Information and Broadcasting Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi, Minister for Mines Sis Ram Ola, MOS for Petroleum and Natural Gas Dinsha J. Patel, Minister for Corporate Affairs Prem Chand Gupta and MOS for Steel Akhilesh Das were the ministers to have recorded more days outside the country on personal visits in comparison to official visits.
Fatmi travelled 14 days on official visits but clocked 181 days on personal visits. In total, he travelled 2,36,605 km (his ministry did not provide details of the expenses), and countries he visited most frequently on his personal expense were Malaysia, Singapore, the UK, France and China.
Fatmi is from Railway Minister Lalu Prasad's Rashtriya Janata Dal. The latter, incidentally, despite his new-found demand as a speaker following the Railways success story, does not belong to the club of frequent fliers.
Dasmunshi took 38 days travelling abroad on personal visits, as against the 20 days he spent overseas on official trips. He travelled 1,59,676 km in total and spent Rs 17 lakh on his official tours. His cities of preference included Kuala Lumpur, Los Angeles, London, Switzerland and Paris.
MOS for External Affairs E. Ahmad spent more time abroad than his senior minister, Pranab Mukherjee. Ahmad spent a total of 232 days on his foreign travels. He covered 6,13,277 km of which 14,262 km were on personal visits. (See graphic: E. Ahmad's trips abroad)
However, Ahmad's travels and the cities most visited are in direct proportion to his official charge. His travels took him frequently to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Singapore and the Rs 1.37 crore spent on his official visits are explained by the fact that Middle-East comes under his ministerial jurisdiction.
The UPA regime has steadfastly refused to reform the education sector by opening it to foreign direct investment. Yet that has not prevented the ministers and the mandarins from catching flights to various corners of the world.
Purandeswari in her 670 days in office made eight trips while her Cabinet Minister Arjun Singh went abroad nine times including an eight-day trip to the Middle-East. The ministry sources say that Purandeswari "presents the case of India very well at the international fora".
In many instances, the connection between the destination and the portfolio is difficult to decipher. Why would an MOS for commerce and textiles visit Uzbekistan thrice?
Or what is the attraction of Serbia for ministers? Although there are entitlement norms for a minister travelling abroad, they are known to demand that they be lodged at the best suites and travel in the most expensive wheels.
Simply because there is the peculiar political fig leaf called convention whereby ministers can justify expenditure with the profligacy of a previous regime.
While official work is a very useful alibi, it is interesting to note that certain destinations are visited by ministers regardless of their portfolio. Information reveals that 17 ministers visited Thailand and 14 ministers went to Malaysia at least once, either on official or on personal visits.
Interestingly, junior ministers (read MOS), who more often fret about not getting enough to do, managed to show up on foreign shores. As many as 33 of the total 40 made 311 trips in total and spent 1,388 days abroad.
Surprisingly, there are seven among them who did not step out of the country at all. They include M.H. Ambarish, MOS for information and broadcasting; J.P.N. Yadav, MOS for water resources; M.V. Rajasekharan, MOS for planning; Manik Rao Gavit, MOS for home; Subbulakshmi Jagadeesan, MOS for social justice; Taslimuddin, MOS for civil supplies and V. Radhika Selvi, MOS for home.
Here's another interesting detail. Italy, Congress President Sonia Gandhi's country of birth, attracted the largest number of ministerial visits, private and official.
No less than 20 ministers visited Italy, and they include Prasad, Sushil Kumar Shinde, Nath, Kantilal Bhuria, R. Velu, Santosh Mohan Dev, Ambika Soni, Subodh Kant Sahay, Shankersinh Vaghela, Vilas Muttemwar, S. Jaipal Reddy, Oscar Fernandes, P.R. Kyndiah, Akhilesh Prasad Singh, Ashwani Kumar, Sriprakash Jaiswal and Renuka Chowdhury. (See graphic: Renuka Chowdhury's trips abroad)
Other ministers who travelled abroad fairly frequently include Mukherjee, Anand Sharma, Sharad Pawar (more on BCCI work than representing the Agriculture Ministry), Anbumani Ramadoss, Chowdhury, Kapil Sibal, Vayalar Ravi, Rao Inderjit Singh and Ashwani Kumar. (See graphic: Anand Sharma's trips abroad)
High fliers II
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Pawar spent 97 days abroad, out of which 49 days were devoted to BCCI work and 37 days were spent on ministerial duty. Sharma, as MOS for external affairs, spent 114 days abroad on his 30 trips and his expenses totalled over Rs 1.33 crore while Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs Ravi spent 125 days on his 18 visits. Both Sharma and Ravi put an equal 670 days in their tenure.(See graphic: Sharad Pawar's trips abroad)
Chowdhury totalled 112 days abroad during her terms in the ministries of tourism and culture, and women and child development. (See graphic: Renuka Chowdhury's trips abroad)
She made three personal trips to Cambodia, Chicago and Singapore, after being moved to Women and Child Development Ministry. While MOS for Labour and Employment Fernandes spent a fairly substantial amount of over Rs 2.26 crore on the 46 days he spent outside the country on official visits.
The reason lies in the fact that he has to take a huge delegation that includes trade union representatives with him. After all, the Government is supported by the Left and the Left-supported trade unions add to the number of his delegates.
Securing access to so much information would have been impossibleconsidering the thickness of red tapeshad there not been the RTI Act in place. When India Today filed an RTI application in PMO on September 27 last year requesting the details of foreign visits of ministers since the UPA Government was formed, along with the approximate expenditure incurred by each of them, the PMO provided all the details except that bit on the expenditure incurred.
The response said, "The culled information does not include expenditure involved in each trip which this office does not maintain and may be obtained from individual ministries/departments."
Subsequently, the magazine got in touch with every ministry and requested the details of foreign visits made by cabinet ministers and ministers of state along with the names of delegates and the approximate expenditure by them for each trip.
Sibal's Ministry of Science and Technology came up with the expenditure incurred on the cash allowances of the minister and other officials on foreign trips but not the airfare. (See graphic: Kapil Sibal's trips abroad)
For airfare alone, a request was forwarded to the Pay and Account Office (PAO), Cabinet Affairs, asking it to "furnish the expenditure incurred towards airfare etc on the visits indicated in the enclosed list of the Hon'ble Minister for Science & Technology".
Responses from some other ministries were at best elusive. The Ministry of Steel said, "Expenditures on the visits of ministers are met from the budget of Cabinet Secretariat or met by the PSU concerned."
The Ministry of Power replied: "The figures indicate expenditure in respect of minister of power alone on airfare. The expenditure incurred for minister of power on daily allowance, hotel accommodation, transportation etc on foreign visit is not available with the ministry as the same is met by the concerned Indian missions abroad and debit claimed directly from PAO, Cabinet Secretariat."
The Ministry of Environment and Forest's reply was comparatively detailed, but on expenditure, it said, "The exact expenditure incurred on these heads is met on actual basis by PAO, Cabinet Secretariat. The final claims are submitted to it after the tours.
The same may be collected from there directly." Similarly, the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises provided all information except for expenses on the basis that "expenditure on the cabinet minister's tour is booked under head 'Council of Minister Tour Expenses maintained by Cabinet Secretariat'".
The response of the Department of Higher Education under the Ministry of HRD was a masterpiece of obfuscation. It said the expenditure "information is compiled after complete information from the Embassy concerned is received in the Ministry, which takes considerable time".
However, the ministry has provided the expenditure details for only three visits out of the nine made by the cabinet minister.
Finally, India Today approached the Cabinet Secretariat for details of ministerial expenses, only to reach a dead-end.
The reply said, "Cabinet Secretariat is in no way the public authority concerned with the information relating to expenditure incurred on the salaries and allowances of ministers of Union Cabinet and the bills are settled between the ministries concerned and the Pay & Account Officer, Cabinet Affairs, and the CABSEC has no role in this regard."
Significantly, ministries like railways, labour, tourism, external affairs, civil aviation, agriculture, urban development, finance and water resources parted with full and detailed information as requested. In cases where responses are still awaited, like the ministries of defence and textiles, information provided by PMO has been used. (See graphic: P. Chidambaram's trips abroad)
Opaque procedures have daunted efforts to get a complete lowdown on the expenses. In a sense, the magnitude of the bill for official tourism is yet a bit of a mystery.
So many peripatetic ministers spending so much of public money seems surprising considering that the PMO ostensibly scrutinises every request for official travel abroad and has been trying to be tightfisted in its clearances.
Sources in the PMO suggest that the expenditure and travel itinerary would have been longer, had the PMO not stalled some habitual travellers. Apparently, the PMO cannot do much when faced with ministers from the coalition allies. (See graphic: Pranab Mukherjee's trips abroad)
The cynical view would be that this too is a coalition expenditure but the facts reveal that the big travellers in the UPA are seasoned Congressmen. (See graphic: Rao Inderjit Singh's trips abroad)
It was Rajiv Gandhi who had coined the phrase "Government on the move". Even he would have been surprised at the distance the UPA Government has travelledabroad, that is.