Official Hostelries Fall on Bad Days

A national daily front-paged a smallish scam perpetrated by the bureaucracy and some ministers of Madhya Pradesh (MP) while on tour. What they did, however, was something reprehensible as it only showed their hypocrisy as also their petty-mindedness.

While on tour on official business in Delhi they stayed in public sector starred hotels but made the Madhya Pradesh Bhavan authorities to pay their bills. Madhya Pradesh Bhavan is a MP government guest house meant for accommodating touring officers and ministers when they are in Delhi on official business. It is a sprawling affair with scores of rooms. And yet it seemed to have proved inadequate as another virtually equally large outfit, the Vindhyachal Bhawan, was created.

The scam was detected during audit of the expenses of these two Bhavans. Quite clearly for ministers and senior officers staying in the guest houses is now kind of infra dig.  Time was when they all used to stay in it and there were and probably still are graded rooms to accommodate officers and ministers of different levels. These were constructed for their benefit as those days staying in hotels or private guest houses was simply unaffordable for even the senior most officers. Trips to Delhi were inevitable and finding suitable and affordable accommodation was a big hassle.

While based in Delhi, I recall, in the early 1970s most of the states gradually started building their respective guest houses in the expansive New Delhi area. The government of Andhra built a new one pretty close to the India Gate area and it became famous for its hot and spicy cuisine. The restaurant would be thrown open to the public on Sundays. Some, like Kerala, even converted as state guest houses the palatial bungalows inherited by them after independence from the erstwhile maharajas.

The IAS officers of state governments like MP are governed by the state rules and they can look for hotel accommodation while on tour to Delhi only if the Bhavans do not have accommodation for them. With the tide of development and relative prosperity things started changing. After the VI Pay Commission recommendations were implemented salaries saw a hefty hike and so did the travelling allowances. With rising standards and aspirations senior government officers don’t find the state guest houses good enough and, therefore, do not look for rooms in; they like to put up in starred hotels. Hence the MP officials apparently pitched on the ingenious method that the audit happened to stumble upon.

 With ministers and senior officials, barring a very few notable exceptions, avoiding them, all the government guest houses have fallen on bad days. They largely cater to, inter alia, relatives and friends of officers, ministers, state MLAs and state politicians who have no legal or official right to avail of the government facilities. This is very unfortunate. A facility that was provided for officials and ministers at great public expense is not only being misused, it also has become a big drain on the government. Not only the state’s guest houses are occupying massive areas of scarce land in prime locations of the capital, the tax payer has to pay for their maintenance as well as meet the fraudulent claims of the officials and ministers. One does not know the fate of guest houses of other states in the capital but if the occupancy rate is unsustainable they might as well do as several circuit houses have done – throw them open to non-official itinerants at competitive rates.

The circuit houses located at the headquarters of various districts, where once upon a time only ministers and gazetted officers could put up, now do not also quite measure up to their needs and style of living. But, for the sake of their survival, many of the circuit houses, after being spruced up, have been thrown open to the public and tourists on very reasonable tariffs. It is good that available facilities, instead of crumbling under state apathy and negligence, have been squarely put out to earn their keep in the very competitive market of tourism.
Set in the midst of huge parcels of land in what used to be generally called Civil Lines (as if all other lines were uncivil), the circuit houses were mostly built during the British era and were formidable looking structures with equally formidable looking khansamas (chefs) who would lord over the place. Having served ministers and top most bureaucrats of the state they would think nothing of smaller fries, the officers low down in hierarchy. But some of them used to be excellent at cooking – both Indian and continental. The rooms used to be well-appointed and a suite, if available, would be kept reserved only for top shots.

The finest ever circuit house that I happened to have stayed in was the one in Bhuj, Gujarat. This was way back in 1964. It was an old converted mansion that once used to be the residence of the British Agent for the princely state of Kutch. A huge drawing room had a banquet hall next to it with a massive dining table. Both were furnished in that princely style with quaint furniture and furnishings. The dining hall had a sideboard full of English silver and china tableware with the inevitable Kutch coat-of-arms. I was allotted one of the two suites on the ground floor that had a sitting room with a study corner, a dressing room – both lavishly equipped – and a bed room with a four poster double bed of intricately carved mahogany. There were two baths, both with (then rare) marble flooring – offering the choice of a WC and an Indian pan. All for just Rs. 3/- a day! I never got to stay in it again as in 1965 the Kutch border became hot and the army took over the building and all that it had.

Another such institution called the Dak Bungalow is now an endangered species. These bungalows were relics of the Raj that survived for more than a couple of centuries. These used to be government bungalows along the main dak (postal) routes erected for the dak (mail) runners for exchange of mails for onward transmission to the next stage. Government officials on tour and non-official travellers could also camp in them. They were one-storied thatched or tiled buildings, with a big central dining-room and two or three bedrooms around which ran a deep veranda, with a slightly removed kitchen and some far-removed outhouses in the midst of sprawling properties. As in circuit houses these too would have a factotum taking care of the brooding, heavily built premises as also of the itinerants.

The dak-bungalows used to be the equivalent of hotels for officials on tours and non-official travelers on the basis of availability straying into the hinterland. Patterned on the old Western coaching-inns these are still operational in certain remote areas but have mostly died out. Having a history, they had lore built around them and, earlier, were generally known for their chicken curry and the spirits that supposed to have haunted them.


More by :  Proloy Bagchi

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