Travesty of travel

The state still caught in monarch practice of durbar move is safe-haven for its movers and shakers who often fly up by creating void of governance on ground. Bilal Handoo argues that there may not be free lunches in the world, but there are surely free rides for the ‘first among the equals’ in Jammu and Kashmir      

Omar Abdullah in Chopper.
Omar Abdullah in Chopper.

In the volte-face of 2010 summer protests, an ‘off-colour’ Omar Abdullah told Press: “My chips are down!” As his ‘haplessness’ prevailed over state of affairs, 120 bodies got piled up in an ‘orgy of blood’. Amid agitation, a speculation reportedly gripped his cabinet: “Omar may quit!” Many say, the speculation triggered some hopes in his cabinet—for eyeing the top slot which was akin to shoot for the moon.

When all this was happening, the state agricultural minister Ghulam Hassan Mir was frequently flying to New Delhi from Srinagar, an official data accessed by this reporter reveals. In fact, from April 13, 2010 to March 3, 2013, Mir took aerial route total 140 times at state’s expense. What is fascinating about these numbers is the exposé of Mir’s love for New Delhi. Out of total 140 flights taken in three years, he was flying (in and out) from India’s capital 86 times.

But in 2010 (the year Mir was allegedly working to “topple” Omar government with the “support” of former Army chief VK Singh), Mir flew New Delhi 22 times from Srinagar – and thereby, setting the already brewing rumour mill on raging fire. But one lawmaker in present dispensation calls Mir a “hardworking minister” who extensively travels to reduce “burdens” of governance: “I believe Mir was only playing his part in 2010 by frequently flying to New Delhi – he was surely working hard to liberate Omar Abdullah from the burdens of his governance!”

In the state of Jammu and Kashmir, even trips, tours and travels seem loaded with politics. Like in the fall of 2011, when Omar Abdullah was in the line of fire after an RTI revealed that he spent Rs 11 crore on a helicopter ride for ‘hardliner’ and former prime minister of Pakistan administrated Kashmir, Sultan Mehmood Chowdhary. The PoK leader is believed to be a ‘hawk’ on Kashmir and very close to valley’s pro-freedom camp. “I met the CM accidentally at a marriage and expressed my desire to visit Pahalgam,” Chowdhary later said. “My host talked to Omar Abdullah and he agreed to facilitate my trip.”

 But due to corruption tag attached to J&K, any sensational revelation often fails to turn heads around. And in spite of fat salaries, free vehicles, security, travel allowance, air and road travel and many other perks, legislators keep floating the norms by taking ‘governance for a ride’.

A state legislator or MLA draws a monthly salary of Rs 80,300 – plus Rs 1 lakh per annum travelling allowance (TA), while MP or member parliament only gets Rs 50,000 as monthly salary.

A minister shall be paid TA at the rate equivalent to the cost of petrol or diesel consumed, an official data reveals. One-and-a-half crore is the annual expenditure on the petrol and telephone bills of ministers. While chief minister is entitled to get travel allowance for travelling 1500 kms, the travel limit for a minister is 1000 kms a month. (A minister may draw advance TA for journeys exceeding 200 miles.)

Besides, a state minister is entitled to draw personal aviation insurance of Rs one lakh – and premium will be paid by the government. Every member or a member of his family will be entitled to reimbursement of Rs 50,000 a year on the production of railway receipt or air ticket.

But these allowances to legislators don’t seem to affect the state’s economy, quips Tanvir Sadiq, Omar’s political advisor – who further believes, if a legislator is paid well, the move will help eradicate corruption. Besides, he says, unlike government employees who work for eight hours a day, politicians work all day for the people, so, there should be no objection, “if they get what they deserve.”

As per various estimates, J&K’s economy is Rs 42000 crore at Gross Domestic Product (GDP – of this, the State has only Rs 5000 crore income from tax and non-tax sources, rest is Central assistance. And of the total income, Rs 16000 is the wage bill and lesser amount remains to be spent on developmental schemes.

Amid this scenario, legislators love flight!

State chopper at a disposal of lawmakers.
State chopper at the disposal of lawmakers.

Other than boarding commercial airplanes, they also travel by state run flying machines. State civil aviation department has one Aircraft King Air-350 and two Helicopters: Bell-407 and Augusta-109E, primarily meant to facilitate the movement of dignitaries, such as Governor and Chief Minister. Chief Minister authorizes its use for other VVIPs like visiting union ministers, presiding officers of legislature, his ministerial colleagues and senior state and central officers.

Aircraft King Air-350 has been generally used to facilitate the movement of VVIPs on Jammu-Srinagar-Leh-Rajouri-Delhi circuits. Helicopters have also been used in case of casualty, evacuation and patient lifting. In the past, the helicopters have also been used to provide airlift to the pilgrims of Amarnath yatra.

But mainly state ministers keep these machines in the air. Interestingly, from April 16, 2010 to February 16, 2013, state finance minister Abdul Rahim Rather took aerial route 166 times. During that period, Rather frequently flew from Srinagar to Jammu, Jammu to Srinagar, Jammu to Delhi, and other states. All these commercial trips (excluding chopper and state plane rides) cost state Rs 16.17 lakh.

However, the chopper rides taken by VVIP’s/dignities/officers have incurred a loss of Rs 326.77 lakhs on state exchequer between 2011 and 2014. (The approximate cost of operation for state aircraft and helicopters works out to Rs 40,000 and Rs 55,000/per hour respectively.) Interestingly, the individual expenditure on each air travel of the state ministers in the aircraft/helicopters is not maintained by the office of civil aviation commissioner.

In addition to free rides, the government enhanced legislator’s DA from Rs 500 to 1000 per day last year. Similarly, their TA has been increased from Rs 50, 000 to 1 lakh per year.

Omar Abdullah, however, hasn’t claimed any TA/DA for the last three years from CM Secretariat, the data suggests. But his deputy and a congressman Tara Chand received Rs 7.87 lakh between March 2011 and January 2014 as his TA/DA.

But it is state tourism minister who ends up taking lion’s share in TA/DA. The former tourism minister Nawang Rigzin Jora received Rs 19.82 lakh as TA/DA between March 2011 and December 2012. The allowances also covered his foreign tours.

After Jora’ exit, the entry of GA Mir as state tourism minister at the end of 2012 kept milking TA/DA from state exchequer sumptuously. Between January 2013 and December 2013, Mir’s regional, domestic and foreign trips fetched him Rs 27.78 lakh TA/DA.

Interestingly, Mir’s one year term fetched him more TA/DA than Jora’s two years term as state tourism minister. Also, while Jora’s foreign trips cost Rs 13.29 lakh, Mir’s cost Rs 22.23 lakh – almost double the amount than Jora. Jora was in South East Asia and Berlin for ‘promotion of tourism,’ while as Mir was in Brazil, Argentina, Madrid, Singapore and London for ‘publicity of tourism’. Along with surged costs, Mir’s tenure changed ‘tactical’ nomenclature for wooing global tourists to J&K – what was ‘promotion’ for Jora became ‘publicity’ for Mir. Interesting.

But travelling babus don’t stop fascinating there only.

During summers, when state government’s durbar camps in Srinagar, many Jammu based ministers are believed to fly frequently to Jammu, closer to home. In 2010, then state health minister Sham Lal Sharma flew back and forth from Srinagar to Jammu 40 times out of his total 58 air flights taken that year.

Interestingly, these visits cost state exchequer Rs 1.71 lakh. And when the durbar shifted to Jammu on November that year, the same minister travelled to Srinagar for merely four times! Sham Lal’s flying obsession for Jammu continued till recently when he resigned ‘in protest’ from Omar’s cabinet over allegations of his role in mishandling the flood situation as state’s PHE minister.

Other than Sham Lal, other Jammu based legislators appear equally homesick when durbar stays in summer capital. On the flip side, valley based ministers and legislators are poles apart – who prefer Jammu when durbar stays in winters, while their Jammu counterparts don’t seem to prefer Srinagar when durbar stays in Srinagar.

CM's cavalcade
CM’s cavalcade

But apart from frequent flights, big costs are equally involved in surface communication of legislators. The government order number 1123-GAD of 1997 dated July 11, 1997 envisages that legislators shall be provided vehicles by the security wing as per “threat perception”. However, fuel and lubricant charges are taken care of by allowances provided to legislators.

On December 15, 2011, the state home department accorded sanction to the procurement of 90 Bolero vehicles and released an amount of Rs 594.82 lakh under state plan during the fiscal 2012-13 for the use of legislators. Mahindra Bolero SLX, allotted to legislators, is equipped with 2WD, 07 seats, BS-III, AC, heater and stereo. These Bolero vehicles are new vehicles, comfortable and fit for use in all types of terrains in J&K.

Meanwhile, it is fourth year since Bashir Ahmad Malik from Drang Khag in Budgam district filed an application under RTI Act in the CM’s office around 2010 seeking details about amount spent by CM’s office on account of  his official chopper rides. This information was never provided to Bashir by the CM’s office until the case landed in State Information Commission (SIC). It was the SIC which actually ordered to reveal this information to the RTI applicant.

Interestingly, while RTI lost its venom over the years after facing state’s axe, Omar on the cusp of losing power is still flying high.

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