On the spot
Sachin Tendulkar’s very commendable decision to turn down the Government house he was offered in Delhi did not get anywhere near the applause it deserved. Not only does our most famous cricketer need to be commended loudly for it he needs to be emulated by other members of Parliament so that Indian taxpayers can stop paying to house our elected representatives in a style so comfortable that rich and famous movie stars and businessman are often reluctant to leave their houses in Lutyens’ Delhi once they are ensconced in them. The only other people who can afford to live in such style are billionaires so in the handful of private residences that remain in Lutyens’ Delhi you will find the likes of Lakshmi Mittal, K.P. Singh, R.P. Goenka and Sunil Mittal. Only billionaires can afford to pay Rs 150 crores for an acre of land and bungalows in this part of Delhi are built on at least an acre. Ministers, senior MPs and high officials live in houses that are built on between two and five acres of land so it is easy to work out why we need to think seriously about ending all Government housing. And not just in Delhi but in our state capitals where Government servants and elected representatives also pay a token rent to live in the most expensive residential areas.
As someone who has campaigned for years against the practice of providing Government housing to our elected representatives and officials I was delighted when Sachin turned down the house they offered him so I tweeted my applause. I got an odd response and it was this that inspired this week’s column. Of course there were many of Sachin’s fans who wholeheartedly supported what he did but, at the same time, there were many tweeters who felt that the gesture was unnecessary and that taxpayers would now have to pay for him to live in five star hotels when he came to Delhi to attend sessions of the Rajya Sabha. They appear not to have noticed that it would be cheaper for taxpayers to pay for Sachin’s hotel accommodation than for him to move into the palatial bungalow, opposite Rahul Gandhi’s house on Tughlak Lane, that he had reportedly been allotted.
Let me explain why. A suite in the best hotels in Delhi costs around Rs 20,000 a night and in some hotels much less than that. So even if taxpayers paid for Sachin’s accommodation it would cost us no more than a few lakh rupees a year. This is nothing compared to paying for him to live, almost free, in a bungalow that sits on five acres of the most expensive land in the country. If other MPs followed his example and the bungalows in Lutyens’ Delhi were rented out at market prices the government would make enough money to build low cost housing on a scale that could rid the city of all slums.
In Mumbai the contrast between how officials live and how the people live is probably more painful than in any other Indian city. While half the population of this city lives in windowless hovels built in the squalid slums that sprawl across most of the territory of this tiny island city ministers of the Government of Maharashtra live in bungalows in Nariman Point where a small apartment recently sold for more than Rs 30 crores. Why do people accept this horrible disparity? In my view it is only because most Indians have not paid any attention to the fact that politicians and bureaucrats in other democratic countries are not housed at the expense of taxpayers.
In the United States the only person who lives in a Government house is the President. In England it is the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the same happens in other Western democracies. I have an American friend who had to give up her job in the State Department and go back to the foreign service because she needed to rent out her house in Washington to pay for her daughters to go through college. The point I am making is that Indian taxpayers have no reason to be as generous as they have been especially if we keep in mind the inability of our governments to build desperately needed housing for those who fall into low income groups.
There are other reasons why it is time to end all government housing. Our officials have built around themselves a cocoon that separates them from the daily travails that ordinary people face in our cities. In their cozy government enclaves there is usually no shortage of water in the taps and almost never the power cuts that make life hell in Delhi in summer. If officials and politicians lived in the same residential colonies as their constituents they would understand these problems better and perhaps work towards doing something about them. Instead of pretending they do not exist as they currently seem to.
The other reason why we need to end government housing is purely commercial. Think of the real estate that would suddenly become available for commercial use? It would bring ridiculously high land prices down in our metropolitan cities and it would release the real estate market from the squalid circle of sharks and black money in which it remains mired in a city like Mumbai. It is shameful that most people who live in our commercial capital cannot afford more than slum dwellings and that young middle class couples spend half their lives trying to buy a small apartment.
So with such obvious need for change why does it not happen? Why has it not already happened? In my view it is mainly because the vast majority of Indians are not aware that it is by no means their duty to house their elected representatives and so not even the crusaders against corruption have raised their voices about this. The other reason is that having lived so long in a ‘socialist’ mindset we continue to follow a practice that we copied from our former role model, the former Soviet Union, and China where revolutionary leaders like Mao Tse Tung moved happily into the Forbidden City in Beijing after they ousted the Emperor. Leftists in India continue to revere these two countries and in any case believe that it is the duty of ‘the people’ to pay for their leaders to live in luxury. It is more than about time that things changed.