VIP homes big burden on taxpayers

Reported by Aditya Kaul in DNA on March 17, 2008

NEW DELHI: Taxpayer money running into several hundred crores is being splurged annually on the upkeep of bungalows in Lutyens’ Delhi.
These bungalows, used by India’s political and bureaucratic leadership, are white elephants in terms of running costs, thanks to their elaborate colonial style construction, huge lawns and staggering security paraphernalia.

A DNA investigation, with extensive use of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, shows that the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) spent more than half a crore (Rs 55.57 lakh in 2006-07) on the civil works in just one residence: the 7 Race Course Road abode of prime minister Manmohan Singh.

Between 2004-05 and 2006-07, the department spent more than Rs 1.5 crore on civil works alone. During the same period, former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s residence saw a spend of nearly Rs45 lakh on civil works .

The residences of the Gandhi family — Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka — saw a spend of nearly Rs47 lakh collectively during these three years.
While Sonia Gandhi lives at 10 Janpath, Rahul Gandhi is housed at 12

Tughlak Lane, and Priyanka Gandhi at 35 Lodhi Estate.
The CPWD declined to part with complete details of the expenditure, especially on electrical fittings and maintenance.

One of the many departments that does electrical work initially responded saying there was “nil” expenditure, only to swallow its words.
It has been dragging its feet on detailed answers. DNA has filed an appeal under the RTI Act against the stonewalling by the electrical wings.

The CPWD, however, provided detailed replies on the money spent on civil and horticulture work in Lutyens’ Delhi, showing it to be probably the most expensive piece of urban living anywhere in the country.

Though the department did not give overall details of the total cost of maintaining the country’s VIPs in that secluded zone, DNA learns from reliable sources that it spends more than Rs 330 crore in the area for maintaining these bungalows and flats.

From the RTI replies, a few trends were very discernible: One, the cost of maintaining these ageing bungalows, which are set over several acres of land, is increasing by leaps and bounds every year. Two, every time a new occupant moves into one of these houses, the CPWD splurges a huge amount of money to rework it to the taste of the new occupant.

Architects and many officials DNA spoke to say that the central government would save money by building cheaper, better and modern housing for its VIPs, whose protection in this dispersed zone leads to yet another massive spend.

Architect Hafeez Contractor says that heritage is important. The amounts being spent on VIP bungalows is not too much, but there can be an appropriate housing policy for them. “It is child’s play. Most of these bunglows, to begin with, have only have a ground or first floor. I think we can make high rises. The government can seriously think of using the land, especially in the New Delhi area, judiciously. Lots of things can be done.”

A CPWD spokesman told DNA that a key reason for the exorbitant cost of maintaining these houses was that they were very old.

The prime minister’s Race Course residence, a complex of at least two bungalows and other buildings spread over several acres, has been witnessing a significant escalation in its maintenance costs during the past five years.

When Manmohan Singh and his wife moved in after the last general elections, the CPWD spent over Rs 47 lakh - actually Rs 18.14 lakh more than the previous year, just for civil engineering works. The Vajpayee family had just moved out.

Strangely, the huge jump in civil expenditure on the PM’s residence wasn’t a one-time affair. The next year, 2005-06, the CPWD spent another Rs 49 lakh, and in 2006-07 it went up further to Rs 55.57 lakh.
There seems to be a spike in civil works after any general election, even if the occupant is the same. Sonia Gandhi’s 10, Janpath, bungalow saw expenses going up from Rs 2.98 lakh in 2003-04 to Rs 8.5 lakh in 2004-05. And between the three Gandhis (Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka), the costs jumped more than twice between 2003-04 and 2004-05 - Rs 8.69 lakh to Rs 19.60 lakh.

Soon after Rahul Gandhi was elected MP, the CPWD spent nearly Rs 5.60 lakh on his newly allotted house, which was more than double what the CPWD spent on 12, Tughlak Lane in 2003-04 (Rs 2.52 lakh). At Priyanka Gandhi’s residence, the civil expenditure jumped from Rs 3.18 lakh to Rs 5.50 lakh in the days after the elections.

To this one should add the gardening expenses at Sonia Gandhi’s residence, which, according to the CPWD, worked out to Rs 2.80 lakh for 2006-07. This is more than double the average spending by the CPWD on maintenance of gardens, and kitchen gardens, in the Lutyens Bungalow Zone residences of VIPs, bureaucrats, judges and their ilk - which comes out to Rs 1.08 lakh a year. These expenditures do not, however, include hidden costs.

The CPWD pays an average of Rs 1.5 lakh per annum to a gardener as his salary. At several VIP residences, there is a brigade of gardeners doing the job.

Atal Behari Vajpayee, who demitted office in 2004 and is in semi-retirement, has a sprawling, ageing bungalow and gardens to maintain. So the government spends nearly Rs 16 lakh on civil works alone at his KM Lane residence.

The high cost of security

It’s not only the bungalows and gardens that cost the taxpayer a pretty penny. Expenses on the Special Protection Group (SPG) protecting prime minister Manmohan Singh and other select VIPs, including UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, totalled Rs 154.32 crore against the target of Rs 132.41 crore in 2006-07.

The SPG protects the prime minister and his/her immediate family members. The force was raised in 1985 in response to the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The SPG has about 3,000 personnel and includes recruits from the police and commandos of the National Security Guards.
The Delhi Police is another agency whose hands are full with VIP protection. The law enforcement agency has a separate security unit which is entrusted with the task of providing outer security cover to the president, prime minister, vice-president, home minister and all other ministers, leader of the opposition, judges and other protectees.

The security wing is currently providing security to 439 protectees and other dignitaries visiting Delhi. In all, 3,030 visits of protected persons were covered by the unit in 2007.
According to some estimates, nearly 5,000 personnel of the security wing are involved in providing security to the prime minister and other VIPs alone. Besides this, the unit has another 1,000 personnel who are dedicated to the president of India’s security.

Then there is the National Security Guard, the counter-terrorism force which too has been sucked into VIP protection. Mayawati is one politician being protected by the NSG, but she isn’t satisfied with it.

The CPWD perspective

The CPWD says that buildings in the Lutyens Bungalow Zone (LBZ) have outlived their utility. A surprisingly large number of houses are largely made of mud and mortar.

The department says that the rise in costs is in no way connected to the fact that these buildings house VIPs. They are simply very old and it takes a lot of money to maintain them. The LBZ guidelines do not allow the CPWD to do any additions or alterations in the structures as they are regarded as heritage buildings.
Permission has to be taken from the Prime Ministers Office (PMO) whenever the CPWD wants to make even minor changes in the structure. The PMO seldom gives the nod for changes.

According to the CPWD, 60% of the expenditure goes towards building material and rest towards wages. The cost of wages has gone up drastically over the years.

The CPWD is, however, trying to provide cost-effective housing in other ways. On Bhagwan Dass Road, it has built multi-storeyed flats - 36 in number - for housing MPs.
“We have recently got another approval from the PMO for constructing another three or four double-storeyed structures in Sunehri Bagh Lane. The construction will start soon. Such new multi-storied structures will lower the cost of maintenance and will help us utilise space better,” said one CPWD official.

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