NEW DELHI -- India’s Planning Commission came under fire Wednesday for spending $70,000 on two toilets for its top officials days after the government called for greater austerity measures.
The agency revealed in response to a right-to-information request that a significant portion of the money was spent on a “door access control system” allowing 60 “very high dignitaries” with special access cards to use the facilities. It also revealed plans to install closed-circuit surveillance cameras in nearby corridors to prevent damage or theft to the fixtures.
The revelations came a few months after the commission was slammed as being insensitive for declaring that Indians would be considered above the poverty line if they earned more than 47 cents per day in villages and 57 cents in cities.
Civic groups countered that toilets should be a priority -- but for the Indian masses, 600 million of whom lack access to basic facilities. Sanitation crusader Sulabh International, which has built 7,500 public facilities around India, said one unit built at a cost of $10,000 can serve 350,000 people a year.
In televised comments to reporters, Planning Commission chief Montek Singh Ahluwalia defended the toilet upgrades, adding that the old fixtures were stinky and renovation included plumbing repairs. The panel added in a statement that the facilities weren’t meant exclusively for top officials. Ministers, foreign dignitaries and journalists frequently visited the building, it said, and the earlier, damaged fixtures portrayed the agency in a poor light.
News of the “airport-quality” wood-paneled toilets, purchased by a government beset in recent months by corruption scandals and policy muddle, drew criticism and amused reflection.
“Very interesting. That is why 'India is incredible,' " said a writer identified as S. Chatterjee of southern Andhra Pradesh state on the ZeeNews.com website, citing a popular tourism slogan.
"The expenditure is justified,” added Suren from the city of Pune. “Archimedes will come out from these 2 toilets & solve problem of poverty of India.”
-- Mark Magnier