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Of free milk and treadmills

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The Commonwealth Games' main stadium in New Dehli… The country seems to have adopted a ‘chalta hai' attitude to corruption in high places.
The Commonwealth Games' main stadium in New Dehli… The country seems to have adopted a ‘chalta hai' attitude to corruption in high places.
Rasheeda Bhagat

While the UK's political leadership is thinking up ways to save as much money for the exchequer as possible, what is happening in New Delhi in the run-up to holding the Commonwealth Games is disgusting, to say the least.

In Britain an interesting public debate is on about cutting corners to save the public exchequer every penny, the argument being that a serious effort to tighten the belt is required in these difficult times.

With Ms Anne Milton, Health Minister in the coalition government, proposing to scrap the free milk scheme for nursery children in UK schools, the British media was engaged in an exercise to find a fitting sobriquet for Prime Minister David Cameron that could rival the one earned by his Tory colleague Margaret Thatcher way back in the early 1970s. As the then Education Secretary, Ms Thatcher had ended free school milk — 1/3 pint for children in the age group 7-11 — and promptly earned the title “milk-snatcher”.

But, sensitive to public opinion, and aware that he was in real danger of getting a similar scathing title, Mr Cameron's administration scotched all speculation that such a move was in the offing. The BBC quoted Mr Stephen Dorrel, an ex-health secretary, as saying the government had decided not to end this scheme as the political risk “didn't merit the rewards.” Every year Britain spends £50 million on the Nursery Milk scheme.

Only on Sunday the British Prime Minister had written in a newspaper advocating that the Government should allow “no sum of waste too small to escape the microscope of efficiency”.

Earlier, Ms Milton had described the scheme as “ineffective and inexpensive” and, in a letter written to a Scottish executive, and which was leaked to the media, said: “There is no evidence that it (the scheme) improves the health of very young children, yet the cost of delivering it is increasing significantly. We think the scheme is out of step with the principle that public funding should focus on the most needy.”

Fully aware of the criticism that would come the coalition's way, she had added in the letter: “Abolition of the scheme will be contentious and we can expect opposition from the media, parents, nurseries, child-minders and the dairy sector. However... this would clearly be the best time to do it, given the state of public finances and the need to make savings.”

Had the cut come, the British daily The Independent speculated, “journalists would have struggled to devise a sobriquet as damaging as ‘Thatcher, the milk-snatcher' for the current Conservative leader.” Would it have been “Cameron the milk kleptomaniac, or Dave the dairy cutter,” it wondered.

Games scandal

While the most robust of economies is pinching pennies and its political leadership racking its brains to save as much money for the exchequer as possible, what is happening in Delhi in the run-up to holding the Commonwealth Games is disgusting, to say the least.

Hundreds of crores of rupees from taxpayers' money have been swindled. The reputation of the organising committee of the Games is in tatters, and its chairman, Mr Suresh Kalmadi, is barely hanging on to his post, making one false and fabricated claim after another.

Whether it is in the renting of treadmills or air-conditioners or liquid-soap dispensers, one TV channel after another has been reeling out unbelievable statistics on how the committee members had rented stuff at twice, thrice or four times the actual cost of the item. The brazen manner in which the whole thing had been done, taking the definition of corruption to another level and even putting to shame Internet jokes on the monumental levels of corruption indulged in by our netas, defies description.

And then to cover up the lies and the corruption, the Indian High Commission in Britain was dragged in, e-mails were fabricated and every rule in the book was flouted. While TV anchors — each one claiming the story was first broken on that channel — reserved the harshest of criticism for Mr Kalmadi and company, what was surprising was the muted response, even of netas from opposition parties.

Resigned to corruption

The understated/unstated message always seemed to be: This is a prestigious event for India; let us not do anything hasty to jeopardise the holding of the Games. After they have been held successfully, we will catch and punish the guilty!

That the Congress party, which leads the UPA government, would say this is understandable, but for some Opposition leaders to chant the same mantra shows the chalta hai attitude we as a country seem to have adopted for corruption in high places.

Of course, some tokenism has been shown and the organising committee of the Games has suspended three errant officials. But this is like bolting the stable doors after the horses have fled! There isn't the faintest chance of the huge money that has been siphoned off being recovered.

The media can only speculate on the mammoth amount that has been swindled, but whatever the figure, the math on how many million malnourished Indian children could have got milk, or at least kanji, from it, and for how many years, should not be too difficult to do.

And where did this money come from? The Government coffers, which are also filled by the sweat and hard work of ordinary, honest, salaried tax-paying middle-class Indians, who can only dream of working out on a Rs 9 lakh treadmill or installing a Rs 4-lakh air-conditioning unit in their homes!

Related Stories:
Corruption as a national scourge and shame
Corruption games

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 10, 2010)
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