A cost-cutting exercise by the Indian Finance Ministry has sparked off a major inter-ministerial battle with the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, with sources warning it could affect India’s representations at major international summits.
What is adding to the concerns is for the first time Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal approval is required for certain kinds of travel, which will add to the red tape and cause delays.
The memorandum issued on January 5 stipulating new instructions for foreign travel has spurred a protest “go-slow” from the MEA on all political clearances for officers travelling abroad.
According to the sources, the standoff would impact Mr. Modi’s visits abroad as well, as the memorandum insists that “In an outgoing delegation there need not be any Ministry of External Affairs official from India. Instead, services of the Indian mission situated in the destination country could be utilised,” adding that any contravention of this must be cleared by Cabinet Secretary P.K. Sinha. “This is foolish. Obviously local embassies don’t suffice for many purposes,” explains one retired diplomat, well versed with administrative matters.
When Mr. Modi had addressed the Indian communities in Shanghai, San Francisco and London in 2015, for example, MEA diplomats from the head office as well as other embassies had been flown in, especially to make arrangements for the Prime Minister’s address, a measure that will be constricted now, the ex-diplomat says.
Finance Ministry officials say the memorandum is part of a bi-annual cost-cutting exercise to restrict foreign travel as much as possible.
The memorandum on restricting foreign travel issued on January 5, 2016 (No.4(4) /E.Coord/2015) by the Department of Expenditure says that delegation sizes must be “kept to a bare minimum” and recommends “leveraging modern technology” instead.
“In respect of objectives that can be achieved through the exchange of letters, or tele/video conferencing or representation from our Missions abroad, no foreign visit need be undertaken,” says the memo.
A Finance Ministry official stresses that the memo is not targeted at the MEA, and that if there are issues, then “remedies can be discussed.”MEA officials say cost cannot be the only consideration, explaining that they are involved in the planning of every foreign visit, and as the ‘nodal’ or coordinating authority for delegations going abroad, they can’t be left out. They also point out that while video conferences might work for technical conversations, most interlocutors will not discuss classified, political or strategic matters over a telephone or computer.
The MEA is equally upset by the stipulation that “no officer shall undertake more than 4 visits abroad in a [calendar] year.” (Courtesy The Hindu)