The Planning Commission's definition of poor excludes those earning more than Rs 28 per day, yet it had no hesitation in splurging Rs 35 lakh on the renovation of two toilets at Yojana Bhavan!
An RTI reply to activist Subhash Agrawal revealed that Rs 5.19 lakh was spent on installing an access control system in the toilets and a total of 60 officials were issued the necessary smart cards.
"Cost of installation of Door Access Control System is Rs 5,19,426 for two toilets. Cost of renovation of two toilets where door access control system is installed is Rs 30,00,305," the activist was informed.
Incidentally, the costly door access system had to be disabled within hours as staff working on both the first and second floor of the commission's headquarters raised objections to being kept out of the fancy washrooms.
Apparently renovation of two toilets on the RBI side of Yojana Bhavan was undertaken as a pilot project. Three other toilets are to be refurbished similarly.
The opposition demanded an inquiry after the media highlighted this on June 6, 2012. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his party the JD(U) strongly criticised the Planning Commission for spending huge sums on revamping toilets.
Since government departments have been ordered to cut down on unnecessary expenditure, the Bharatiya Janata Party questioned the relevance of the much-vaunted austerity drive after the stunning revelations. However, the Planning Commission asserted that only routine maintenance had been carried out.
Days earlier, a newspaper had highlighted how the commission's Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia incurred foreign travel expenses to the tune of Rs 2.02 lakh per day between May and Oct 2011.
Another report said that he undertook 42 official trips, aggregating 274 days, between June 2004-January 2011 at a cost of Rs 2.34 crore. When various editorials about these staggering figures appeared, Ahluwalia claimed that foreign travel is necessary for discharge of official duties.
The Planning Commission's extravagance is particularly shocking given the controversial poverty line estimates it came up with twice. First it said that if an individual is earning more than Rs 32 each day, he or she does not fall in the BPL category. It later revised the figure downwards.
The commission seemed to be oblivious of the fact that millions of Indians cannot manage even two square meals a day despite their best efforts. This is a country where thousands still defecate in the open as there are no toilets nearby.
Pathetic ignorance of the ground realities is not expected from the panel that is supposed to formulate policies for our collective welfare. The Planning Commission's members must descend from their ivory towers and look at the example set by one of the world's richest persons.
During his recent visit to India, Microsoft founder Bill Gates said that he is searching for "a cheaper alternative to the flush toilet that does not require running water, has smell characteristics better than the flush toilet and is cheap."
Averring that no innovation in the last 200 years has saved more lives than the toilet, he rued that 2.6 billion people across the world still don't have a safe "affordable way to poop".
Bill's dream of an inexpensive and non-polluting toilet is similar to the one of Bindeshwar Pathak who devised the Sulabh toilets. The latter has already made a significant contribution in eradicating the abhorrent practice of human scavenging.
If the planners emulate these two individuals, the entire nation will benefit. Alas, they haven't shown any such inclination so far.