Recollections of a communicator; George Fernandes was a pioneer economy traveler(Article)

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New Delhi, Sep 14 (ANI): Much has been written during the last one week about the directions by the Government of India to the Ministers and Congress Members of Parliament to travel economy class during their tour within the country or abroad.

Much also has been made about the 'directions' communicated to the Minister of External Affairs S.M. Krishna and Minister of State Shashi Tharoor to shift from their rooms in five star hotels even though they were paying for the rental personally.

The Cabinet Minister who refused to travel first class out of conviction was George Fernandes, the former Minister for Defence. I witnessed it as Information Consultant in the Defence Ministry. In fact it caused me some embarrassment, as I was booked in the Indian Airlines flight in the first class which was my entitlement and to my surprise I saw the Defence Minister, George Fernandes traveling in the economic class during the flight from Delhi to Mumbai.

I quietly went to a person traveling in the economy class to take my seat in the first class and traveled in the economy class. Later, whenever I traveled with George Fernandes I took care to ensure that my booking was done in the economy class.

Last week, I heard the Congress Spokesperson Manish Tewari saying that he was ready to travel even in the cargo compartment.

I recalled that I had to travel in the cargo compartment of a IL-76 of the Indian Air Force from Gauhati to Delhi in 2004 along with George Fernandes. The plane was not pressurized and not one word could be heard by me during the two-hour long flight though I was in the bucket seat along with the Defence Minister.

George Fernandes had visited Tawang a day earlier, saw the monastery and war memorial there, did a survey of the posts keeping a watch on the Chinese border. On return when we were told that the Indian Airlines flight was cancelled, he chose to travel by the IL 76 cargo aircraft, which was on a routine flight, as he had to proceed on an engagement from Delhi.

Incidentally, during his period as Defence Minister, George Fernandes chose to visit Siachen Glacier to see how the Jawans were living there. When he saw that they were not adequately clothed as there were some 'budgetary problems', he told the Defence Ministry that the officers concerned should pay a visit to the outposts in Siachen.

In no time, the Jawans got their clothes and snowmobiles in Siachen. From then onwards George Fernandes visited Siachen every three months, as the turnover period there used to be three months and he wanted to meet every contingent who were doing a tenure of duty there. He had visited Siachen 18 times as Defence Minister.

He was insistent on personally going through the conditions in which the soldiers, sailors and airmen lived and worked. He travelled in a Light Combat Aircraft being developed by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) after subjecting himself to the physical tests that every pilot has to pass through.

It is also not the first time that Cabinet Ministers have been staying in five-star hotels. I recall a former Prime Minister booking scores of rooms in the Maurya to accommodate his family who had come along with him when he was sworn in. They stayed there for weeks and special food was prepared for them to see that they felt at home.

Today the Jumna is in spate. So also the Government departments. One recalls the days when Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was the Prime Minister. He had an office in South Block with two personal secretaries who took all the dictations and maintained his office. Today, the number of personal secretaries working for a Cabinet Minister is around a score, leave alone the Prime Minister's Office.

And Home Minister Chidambaram is struggling to persuade his colleagues and senior political leaders to reduce the number of 'guards' deployed to 'protect' them. His personal example not to have the guards has hardly been emulated by others.

I. Ramamohan Rao, former Principal Information Officer, Government of India. E.mail:raoramamohan@hotmail.com. (ANI)

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