Big is not beautiful

Big is not beautiful

It is an anachronism for the President of India to live in a building with 300 bedrooms and suites at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Even the White House, in Washington DC, does not have so many rooms.

The British built this palace during the colonial era, when India was a British colony, to house the Viceroy who represented the Queen. In 1910, 3,500 men worked on 3.5 million cu. ft of marble and 700 million bricks for two decades to construct it.

Sixty years after the British left, it is unbecoming that the President of India should live in a lavish palace, when nearly 200 million Indians live without a latrine attached to their homes. Rashtrapati Bhavan has 300 bedrooms, and encompasses 130 hectares of land, employing 418 gardeners. It is bigger than Louis XIV’s place at Versailles, France. Furthermore, it has a private zoo and acres of gardens attached to it. All these are a waste of public money. The palatial building of Rashtrapati Bhavan could be converted into a seven-star hotel property. We can earn foreign exchange from it. After all, the palaces of most former maharajas in India have been converted into five-star hotels! So, why should the new servants of the people be living in such opulence? There is a press report that 22 bedrooms are being refurbished in Stage I, to accommodate the new President, with new rugs, curtains, drapes, furniture, upholstery, etc. Who is paying for all this, when at least 50 million Indians sleep on the streets every night?

The argument that the President needs this mansion for state affairs is flippant. Prime minister Golda Meir lived in a modest villa. Many presidents of Pakistan have lived in army barracks!

The argument that the President is not paid well, and the palatial dwelling is a just perquisite, is bizarre. Then, we just correct the salary. The President is paid Rs50,000 per month. This is being enhanced to Rs100,000 per month. This is a ludicrous salary, despite other perquisites such as housing, transport and pensions. The President of India is a powerful position and should earn a minimum salary of Rs5 crore per annum. Many MBAs in India and abroad garner salaries of $200,000 a year at the beginning of their careers. CEOs in India and abroad have pay packets of Rs5 crore to Rs25 crore per annum. The President of India deserves to be paid more than a transnational CEO selling lingerie or hair oil.

Nevertheless, the President of India should be shifted to a more modest villa, in keeping with the ethos of the country.

After retirement most ex-presidents do live in smaller houses. Rajendra Prasad spent life in retirement at Sadaqat Ashram on the banks of the Ganges in Patna. S. Radhakrishnan lived with his family in Chennai. Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy lived on his farmland in Anantpur, Andhra Pradesh, in a modest house. Zail Singh moved to a bungalow allotted to him on Delhi’s 4, Circular Road. R Venkataraman flew away to Chennai the day he relinquished office, saying he had an “urgent urge to sleep". S.D. Sharma moved to his home on Delhi’s Safdarjung Road. After his retirement, K.R. Narayanan lived on Prithviraj Road in Delhi.

The people’s president, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, spent his first night in a government guest house without electricity, and later flew to Chennai’s Anna University to resume his teaching career.

The former prime minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s house, Teen Murti Bhavan, has been converted into a museum. All subsequent prime ministers have lived in modest houses. Lal Bahadur Shastri was an example of frugal living. The new President should emulate Mahatma Gandhi and Lal Bahadur Shastri.

Rajendra K. Aneja is CEO of a foods company in West Asia. He was MD of Unilever Tanzania, Africa. He has also written a book, Agenda for a New India. Comment at