Union Ministers are busy people, and perennially unsure of their schedule. Or so it would seem from the considerable bill run up by the Union Railways Minister on charter planes and multiple bookings.
As part of a series on the misuse of public funds by various ministries of the government of India, an investigation into the workings of the Railways Ministry reveals that rail officials frequently have bent rules to provide charter planes to Union Railways Minister Piyush Goyal since he got the portfolio in September 2017. This has cost the public exchequer 15-20 times more than what it would have cost for the minister to board regular planes.
A Railways rule underlines that the Railways can hire a charter plane or helicopter only in case of railway accidents. A minister cannot hire a charter plane for official business unless he is inspecting an accident site.
It is also worth noting that Narendra Modi had invoked austerity measures soon after his swearing-in as Prime Minister in 2014. The rulebook states that all government officials including ministers have to fly Air India unless flights are not available in emergency situations. However, Railways officials let Piyush Goyal and his two junior ministers in the Railways, take private airlines instead of Air India.
In addition to this, the Minister’s office buys two to three air tickets for the same destination on a given day just to ensure that Goyal doesn’t miss his flight. This expense is paid by the Railways, so essentially it is at the expense of Indian taxpayers.
In September 2017, within days of swearing-in as Union Railways Minister, Piyush Goyal’s office put out a request for hiring a charter plane to travel from Delhi to Surat and later Mumbai. In response to the request for hiring a charter plane, Additional General Manager, Northern Railways Manju Gupta wrote to the Railways Board: “The Schedule of Powers, vide para 58 of Part-A (Powers of General Manager), empowers the GM/DRMs to requisition helicopter/aeroplane to reach the site of serious accident for rescue operations expeditiously and to evacuate injured and dead in the event of serious accident. No such powers for hiring/booking chartered flight/helicopter for Hon’ble MR (Minister of Railway) have been given therein.’’
Newslaundry has accessed this letter. The letter also states that the Railways Board should put appropriate norms in place since “such demands [for charter flights] may arise’’ in future. The letter proposes that the Railways Board should depute a Railways Public Sector Unit (PSU) to hire charter planes if need be. After receiving the letter, the Railways Board without wasting any time appointed Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) to hire charter planes for the Minister.
Goyal, however, later dropped his Surat travel plan. It is unclear how the Railways Board could appoint the IRCTC to overrule a central government circular. Later, as per Railways records accessed by Newslaundry, IRCTC did book charter planes for Piyush on at least three occasions.
Records show that Goyal first flew along with his wife Seema Goyal and his private secretary to Mumbai-Belgaum-Delhi on a three-day trip (February 9-11, 2018), which cost Rs 13 lakh. His second charter flight to Shani Shingnapur-Shirdi-Tulapur (pilgrimage places known for their temples) and later to Latur on April 2 cost Rs 25.50 lakh. This trip coincided with a bhoomi poojan of a coach factory he attended at Latur. And on June 2, he travelled from Delhi to Jodhpur and then back to Delhi on a charter plane, costing over Rs 10 lakh.
Goyal’s charter plane seems to have incurred more expenses towards waiting rather than flying if one is to go by the three-day Belgaum schedule put out by his office. A charter plane takes anything between Rs 2 lakh and Rs 3 lakh per hour as waiting charge.
According to the schedule, he arrived at Belgaum at 10:00 am on February 10. The charter plane remained parked till 8.15 pm on February 11, and then it took off to Delhi, his final destination. And when the plane was parked, the minister travelled by road to inspect a site of road over-bridge, paid tribute to Mahatma Gandhi at Belagavi railway station, inaugurated UTS Mobile ticketing App over South Western Railways Zone from Belagavi railway station and works to the facelift of the station building.
It would have cost Goyal less than Rs 50,000 if he had taken a routine return flight to Belgaum, assuming he was travelling by business class. But a charter plane cost taxpayers nearly Rs 13 lakh. The minister inaugurated a Railways App and discussed the budget with businessmen. Again, it should be remembered that the minister is not entitled to charter planes unless he is inspecting an accident site.
During his charter flight to Latur in April, Goyal first went to pay homage to deities. “I’m fortunate to have darshan of Shani mandir in Shani Shingnapur this morning; I took blessings of Sai Baba at Shirdi and then went to Tuljapur to take blessings of Maa Bhawani before coming to Latur,’’ he was later quoted saying in his speech. Piyush did bhoomi pujan of a coach factory at Latur and wound up the tour. The chartered flight alone cost the exchequer Rs 25.50 lakh.
Piyush and his family visited Shani Shingnapur in the past too. According to his website, he had visited Shani Shingnapur on October 26, 2016, along with his wife and son Dhruv.
Moreover, one of his latest trips by a special plane was to Jodhpur, where he flagged off Humsafar Jodhpur-Bandra Express. This cost taxpayers a little over Rs 10 lakh.
As Gupta had pointed out in her letter, Railways officials can only requisition helicopters or planes to reach the site of serious accidents for rescue operations expeditiously and to evacuate injured and dead in the event of a severe accident. No helicopter or plane in the interim has been used for rescuing passengers during the 73 train accidents that occurred in 2017-18. Moreover, no private carrier has ever been hired for the minister to visit the accident site.
Three ministers – Piyush Goyal, Rajen Gohain and Manoj Sinha – in the Railways Ministry have often travelled by private airlines and not by the national carrier, Air India. The rules were relaxed a little in 2016, and the exemption is permitted only with permission from the Ministry of Civil Aviation. Additionally, a government employee can travel by private airline only in the case of organ transplantation.
But the rules were bent and post-facto permission was requested after the trip, documents reveal. The Railways funded as many as 1,023 air trips by private airlines for Piyush Goyal, his fellow ministers, Rajen Gohain and Manoj Sinha and his predecessor Suresh Prabhu, ministers’ relatives, attendants, companions and their personal staff, from 2016 till date.
According to the Railways records, Goyal travelled over 80 times by private airlines in less than a year and his predecessor Suresh Prabhu took private airline flights 105 times during his stint as Railways Minister. His wife Uma Prabhu also travelled on some occasions.
Piyush’s fellow ministers seem to be busier than him. Minister of State Rajen Gohain travelled 177 times by private airlines. This also includes occasional travel by his wife Rita Gohain, his three sons – Dev B Gohain, Debrata Gohain and Varun Gohain – and three daughters – Meghna Gohain, Shusmita Gohain and Antra Gohain. Manoj Sinha billed for 109 private flights, and on occasions, his wife Neelam Sinha also travelled along with him.
And the rest of 552 private flights go to attendants, companions and ministers’ and Railways staff. The Minister’s office sought post-facto approval every time they travelled by private planes citing reasons of ‘tight schedule of Hon’ble Minister’ and ‘non-availability of suitable Air India flights’.
Newslaundry accessed the Railways records, which sought post-facto approval for travelling in private airlines. A Google search of availability of Air India domestic flights shows that there are a number of flights to Metro cities like Mumbai and Bangalore. But apparently, the ministers and their staff don’t find these ‘suitable’ and take the private flights. The government had made travel by AI flights mandatory to overcome years of losses that AI suffers. The government was ready to pay more because AI flights are often more expensive than the ones run by private planes. No wonder that the domestic market share of Air India remains less than 14 per cent during 2016-2018 and the national carrier remains in red forever.
In addition, a government circular issued to all private secretaries to all Union Ministers dated October 7, 2004 (it’s still effective and hasn’t been superseded so far), notes: “a Union Minister is entitled to travelling allowance in respect of not more than twelve return journeys performed during each year, within India, for himself and his family, whether travelling together or separately…’’ The Ministers have an overall entitlement of 48 single journeys each year, the circular says. And the same circular stated that the Minister may take along his private secretary or personal assistant or domestic help in his entitled class only in ‘public interest’. All the flights that were undertaken in the Railways in the past two years were, however, marked as ‘official’.
As stated earlier, Goyal’s staff is in the habit of booking more than one flight for a destination. The Minister avails one flight, and in other cases, it leads to either ‘cancellation’ or ‘no show’ at public exchequer’s expense.
For instance, Goyal went to Bangalore on March 8, 2018. His staff booked two flights from Bangalore to Delhi on March 8, Flight numbers 9W – 808 that cost Rs 40,211 and AI 503 that cost 47,802. The minister travelled by one, and the other ticket was either cancelled or simply wasted. (Newslaundry has accessed these records.)
The very next day, he was planning to fly to Mumbai, but the staff wasn’t sure when would he fly back to Delhi. So, they booked flight number – UK 960, for March 11 that cost Rs 53,077 and another flight – UK 970 for March 12, that cost Rs 53,455.
There are numerous such instances. On March 23, Piyush’s staff booked four air tickets for the minister from Delhi to Lucknow – 9W 7002 that cost Rs 23,088; 9W 740 that cost Rs 13,531; UK 998 that cost Rs 15,494; and AI 811 that cost Rs 17,996.
On April 5, his staff booked two air tickets from Delhi to Mumbai – AI 624 for Rs 43,084 and 9W 376 for Rs 54,147. Since the staff wasn’t sure that Piyush would fly on April 5, they booked for April 6 too – UK 988 that cost Rs 53,077. And for return from Mumbai to Delhi, two flights were booked for 7 April – UK 960 for Rs 53,077 and 9W 307 for Rs 41,710. Still not sure if the Minister would take off on April 7, another Mumbai to Delhi was booked for 10 April – 9W 310 for Rs 48,155.
There are numerous such examples (and Newslaundry has looked into quite a few of them), but it is worth noting that the ‘extra’ or ‘additional’ tickets bought for the Minister or his personal staff that are either cancelled or resulted in ‘no show’, caused a considerable loss to the exchequer.
The Railways has not yet quantified multiple bookings by the Minister’s offices. The officials are checking the records. The refund policy differs from airline to airline, but there is no refund if there is ‘no show’. And there is no refund if the ticket is cancelled less than 2 hours before departure.
In cases of cancellations, you obviously get refunds, though, it isn’t much and depends on airline to airline. In cases of online bookings, the travel agencies retain maximum amount as the cancellation fee, and a mere fraction is refunded if any.
Goyal, who also happens to be the interim Finance Minister and Coal Minister, is a Rajya Sabha member since July 5, 2010. Newslaundry asked him if he had hired charter planes on account of Finance and Coal Ministry too. However, he did not reply to Newslaundry’s queries. Newslaundry repeatedly sent a set of questions to him, his office, two other ministers – Rajen Gohain and Manoj Sinha — and the Railways Board, but no reply has yet been received. We will update the story as and when we receive their responses.
As Newslaundry waited for the Ministry’s reply for over two weeks, Goyal’s office, in the meantime, sent a request to book yet another charter flight for the minister to fly to Varanasi on August 5 and then board a helicopter to Mughal Sarai, where he would attend a function for renaming of Mughal Sarai station to Deen Dayal Upadhyay station. But the request was withdrawn at the last minute since the Minister finally flew with BJP’s President and Rajya Sabha Member Amit Shah, sources in IRCTC said.