New Delhi: About a dozen government officials, who had travelled to Fiji as part of the official Indian delegation to participate in the World Hindi Conference (WHC) between 15 and 17 February, said they were left high and dry last week, when soon after landing at the country’s Nadi International airport they were told to book their return ticket to Delhi as their visit was “unauthorised”.
Another 100 officials, who were also supposed to be part of the delegation and all set to travel to Fiji, were told by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), the organiser of the WHC, to cancel their tickets at the last moment, ThePrint has learnt.
The reason behind the changes — an eleventh-hour decision by the Union Finance Ministry to trim the massive Indian delegation.
A government source also suggested that the composition of the Indian delegation could have also been a factor in the last-moment cut.
“The delegation looked like a government junket full of officials. There were hardly any scholars or academics in the group,” the source told ThePrint.
The idea behind the WHC is to popularise and promote the Hindi language and Hindi-related activities. The first conference was held in Nagpur, way back in 1975.
External affairs minister S. Jaishankar inaugurated the 12th WHC whose theme was “Hindi – Traditional knowledge to artificial intelligence” on February 15.
Multiple government officials told ThePrint that on 11 February, just four days before the conference was to start, the department of expenditure (DoE) under the finance ministry slashed the number of officials on the list of Indian delegates from 165 to 51.
This, when all the officials had already booked their air tickets after getting the necessary political clearance from the MEA and their respective line ministries had issued them the sanction order, authorising them to travel.
According to officials, the government had started the process to nominate officials to participate in the conference from November last year. The MEA had written to all central government ministries, departments and PSUs to nominate officials for the conference. It was only after the sanction order was issued that officials got their tickets booked. The sanction order was also shared with the Indian High Commission in Fiji for arranging accommodation and other logistics, the officials added.
ThePrint reached MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi over email Monday, seeking a response on the issue, but received no reply till the time of publishing of this article.
ThePrint also contacted finance secretary T.V. Somanathan on email and phone call, to know the reasons for the last-minute decision, but is yet to get a response. This story will be updated once a response is received.
‘Got a rude shock’
The 114 officials who were eventually dropped from the list of conference delegates had followed the same procedure of sanction and clearance as all the other members, government officials told ThePrint.
Two factors complicated their predicament: the timing of the communication of their removal from the list and the fact that getting to Fiji requires nearly a day and a half of travel.
The MEA officially communicated the Finance Ministry’s decision to trim the delegation via an e-mail sent to the dropped officials on 13 February. A call was made a day earlier too to those travelling to the conference.
However, close to a dozen ex-delegates had already landed in Fiji, after travelling for about 30 hours, and were told at the airport to book their return tickets to Delhi. Others back home were getting ready for their journey when they were told to cancel their tickets.
“They (the ones in transit) could not see MEA’s mail and got a rude shock after landing in Fiji. At the airport help desk, the officials were told to return to Delhi immediately as their names were not there in the list of approved officials,” a director-level official in a central ministry told ThePrint on condition of anonymity.
The official, who was among those dropped from the Indian delegation, added: “The officials, who had travelled for 30 hours, reached out to the Indian High Commission in Fiji for arranging some transit accommodation till they booked their return tickets, but were told to manage on their own. The officials somehow booked their return tickets and flew back to Delhi.”
ThePrint reached out to P.S. Karthigeyan, Indian high commissioner in Fiji Monday via email and phone calls, but received no response till the time of publication of this report.
‘Decision could have been taken earlier’
Back in India, there was a lot of consternation among officials who were getting ready to travel, but were informed at the last moment that their names had been dropped.
Several such officials told ThePrint that they are not questioning the Finance Ministry’s decision to cut out 114 names which were approved earlier, but the timing of the decision.
“If the government thought the Indian delegation had become too big, it is well within its right to curtail the number. But why do it just four days ahead of the conference? It could have been done earlier, before the ministries got political clearance and issued sanction letters to those selected for travel,” said a senior government official, whose name was dropped.
This official, who did not wish to be named, added: “If this decision was taken earlier, the government would not have lost money in cancellation. Also it would have saved the unnecessary hassle faced by officials who had to get the tickets cancelled at the last moment.”
The last-minute decision of the finance ministry created utter chaos with officials, who were not in transit, hurrying to get their tickets cancelled. Because of the last-minute cancellation, only a small refund could be obtained, said one of the officials who cancelled his ticket on the night of 12 February.
A round trip to Fiji costs anywhere between Rs 1.15 lakh to Rs 2 lakh, depending on the day the ticket was booked, officials said.
Another official in a central ministry told ThePrint that he got a phone call from the MEA around 8:30 pm on 12 February, a Sunday. At the time, he said, he was in the process of booking a cab to drop him at the airport.
“My flight was in the wee hours of 13 February and as I was getting ready to book a cab for the airport drop, I got a call from some MEA official handling the WHC who told me that my name had not been approved. First, I thought it was some kind of joke as I had not received any mail in this regard,” the official told ThePrint.
He added: “I called back on the same number again to confirm. The official who picked up said that several names have been dropped and a mail informing about the same would follow soon. Since many of the officials were due to fly shortly, they were calling up individual officials and telling them. After putting the phone down I immediately called my PS (private secretary) and asked him to get the ticket cancelled,” the official said.
Worries about ‘unauthorised’ travel
The MEA’s mail, that ThePrint has seen, had attached the list of names of those that made the final cut as well as those that had been nixed by the DoE.
“Officers whose names have not been approved are advised to not travel to Fiji as it will be considered unauthorised travel,” the mail said.
There is no clarity yet about who will bear the ticket cost of the officials who unknowingly landed in Fiji, because their travel has been deemed as ”unauthorised” by the Finance Ministry.
“There is a concern among such officials if disciplinary action will be initiated against them,” said a second official.
Asked about the chaos caused by the last-moment cut, a senior government official, who did not want to be named said: “It could have been avoided had the Finance Ministry taken the decision well in advance.”
The official pointed out that it was not the first time that such a large government delegation was being sent to the WHC.
“For the 11th WHC, which was organised in Mauritius, the Indian delegation had close to 300 people. Large delegations had gone a couple of times earlier too. The government should ideally put a cap on the number of officials going to the WHC,” the official said.
He added that the expected “outcome” of going for the conference was also not very clear. “What do the officials going to WHC learn, and how they implement it to promote Hindi when they return? The government should come up with definable outcomes from such conferences.”
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)