As India grapples with the prospect of almost a fourth of its population of 1.3 billion sinking into poverty due to the economic fallout of COVID-19, the country is wisening up to the fact that while it has been singularly incapable of redeeming their plight, it is defraying much of its resources towards catering to possibly the most expensive Prime Minister in its history.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is frequently given to evoking his impoverished childhood. But the crisis of the destitute exacerbates India’s struggle against the virus. The projection of the 260 million newcomers to poverty has been jointly made by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI). India has the highest number of poor globally, identified as those living onless than Rs 150 a day.
While questions are being raised about social security and food security for those who have been driven to the margins of society by the punitive lockdown on account of COVID-19, the budgetary allocation exclusively for the Prime Minister’s personal security has been raised by 11 per cent, to Rs 592.5 crore for the current year, or Rs 1.62 crore a day. This represents a doubling of the budget from Rs 289 crore in 2014 when Modi came to power and when this allocation covered the previous Prime Minister, his family and other select politicians.
The Rs 592.5 crore covers the upkeep of the elite 3,000-strong Special Protection Group (SPG) dedicated to the incumbent Prime Minister. Some 500 of them protect Modi’s official residence round the clock, armed with FN F2000 NATO bullpup rifles, automatic guns and Glock 17M duty pistols.
The Prime Minister, however, feels the need to shift to a grander setting, and a new outstanding house for himself is part of his initiative of a complete redesigning of the magnificent Parliament vista in New Delhi established during colonial times. Estimated to cost Rs 20,000 crore, the Central Vista Redevelopment Project is one of the most ambitious government projects, entailing construction of a new Parliament House to replace the current iconic colonnaded structure built in 1931, as also 10 new government office buildings that will replace existing ones earmarked for demolition. The imposing and symmetrical North and South Blocks, which house the Prime Minister’s Office and some key ministries, will become museums.
Modi’s another dream project has been a similar ‘makeover’ of his parliamentary constituency, the living heritage city of Varanasi. Under the Rs 600 crore plan to make this ancient holy city on the banks of the Ganga river more ‘tourist-friendly’ and easily accessible to visiting dignitaries, hundreds of ancient temples and heritage residences and shops, some up to 300 years old and meandering along idyllic lanes and bylanes, have been demolished, displacing thousands of townspeople.
Yet another brainchild of the Prime Minister has been the ‘bullet train project’ connecting Ahmedabad, the financial capital of Gujarat, that he was chief minister of, from 2001 to 2014, and Mumbai. Work on the Rs-1.08-lakh-crore project began in 2017 and once complete, the 508-km distance was expected to be covered in two and a half hours, compared to the present six and a half. Masses are being displaced as farm and forest lands, mangroves, and residential and commercial enclaves are being acquired to pave the way for this project. However, a one-way ticket will cost Rs 3,000, whereas air travel between the two cities takes an hour and a half and costs far less. Besides, present train fares for the route range between Rs 180 and Rs 310.
Modi also frequently recalls his ‘ascetic’ roots, typified by renunciation and abstinence. “I quit everything very early in life…and my training was such that I gave up all ties,” he says. But while he disowned his family, in a meeting with then visiting US President Barack Obama shortly after he became Prime Minister, Modi turned out in a monogrammed pinstripe bandhgalasuit that subsequently entered the Guinness World Records as “the most expensive suit sold at an auction” (for around Rs 4.3 crore).
Thus, when in his latest address to the nation on May 12, Modi urged people to seize the opportunity presented by COVID-19 to become self-reliant and shun foreign goods so that Indian businesses would prosper, the social media erupted with derision, generally commenting: “There is a man on TV who wears only [German handmade] Maybach sunglasses and [Swiss-made (now American)] Movado watches and writes only with [German] Mont Blanc pens, and who is driven only in [German] custom-made bullet-proof BMW cars who is telling us that we should buy local.”
Besides, while previous Indian governments requisitioned a B747 aircraft from Air-India’s fleet for air travel by the Prime Minister, President and Vice President, the Modi government has ordered two new B777-300ER planes from Boeing at a cost of Rs 8,458 crore for their exclusive use. Their delivery scheduled for July, these aircraft will have state-of-the-art missile defence systems that are supposed to render them as safe as the US President’s Air Force One B747-200B.
And while the fate of millions of the traumatised migrant workers buffeted by the lockdown hangs by a thread, Union Minister of State for External Affairs, V. Muraleedharan, informed the Lok Sabha on May 5 that the 59 overseas visits made by the Prime Minister between 2014 and a year ago have cost the state exchequer Rs 446.52 crore. He added that the amount was set to rise as bills for Modi’s additional visits in the last one year were yet to come in.
(The writer is executive editor of Business India. Views expressed are his own)