The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Save or splurge, babu wins

Calcutta, Oct. 11: Watch your phone bill — thank you, sir, will give finger and ear a rest. Eight litres of oil is all you get to travel a day — thank you, sir, won’t budge from office. Don’t hold meetings on holidays — thank you, sir, won’t budge from home.

It’s nice to be a babu — little work and a lot of no-work — all those who aren’t babus have always said enviously. Now, after finance minister Asim Dasgupta’s austerity measures, they have even more reason for envy.

Even the babus — usually a grumbling lot — are saying work or no-work is fun. “If the austerity measures are implemented in their true spirit, work will be fun,” a senior bureaucrat said on condition of anonymity.

After slashing puja bonus and ex-gratia by half for its 10 lakh employees, a cash-trapped administration has now targeted bureaucrats to cut expenditure. Early this week all district magistrates were summoned to Writers’ Buildings for an emergency briefing on cost-cutting.

The meeting followed a seven-page circular issued to district magistrates and departmental heads. It lists “certain economy instructions” to cut “avoidable” expenditure. The main targets of the measures are three: phone bills, fuel expenses and travel.

From refreshments served during meetings to use of vehicles and number of phone calls — almost the entire range of activities performed to run the administration has come under the finance ministry’s scanner.

For instance, all government establishments have been asked to furnish a list of officials, with or without STD connections, to the finance department by October 15. The pattern of use and requirement of fuel will also have to be submitted by the same date.

Dasgupta’s department will use the data to work out ceilings on phone calls made by officials and the fuel used by government vehicles.

“The (work) pressure will come down drastically if we give up our cellphones and economise on phone calls. We will be happy not attending meetings on holidays and spend more time screening log books to stop misuse of fuel,” the bureaucrat said.

Echoing the concerns expressed by a section of the bureaucrats, an economist warned the government about the possibility of an immediate casualty in the form of lower productivity. “You can’t expect a disgruntled bureaucracy bailing you out of a financial crisis,” he said.

The finance minister expects to save over Rs 500 crore in administrative expenses and use the money in development projects.

But the economic impact of the austerity exercise — short term in nature — is also being questioned by some experts. “The biggest problem facing the West Bengal government is its monthly wage bill (around Rs 1,000 crore), which is the result of a large administration. Tackling expenses under this account is the biggest challenge,” one of them said.

Given the huge pile of debt the government has accumulated and the deficit of income over expenditure, they are advising the government to focus on revenue collection instead of tinkering with administrative expenses.

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