LAHORE - While announcing the new year’s budget, Finance Minister Dr Hafeez Shaikh told the National Assembly that as part of the government’s austerity drive the Prime Minister’s House will be converted into an institute of advance studies and the chief executive of the country will live in a small house elsewhere.

Apparently it looks like a good idea coming from a God-fearing leadership, but in reality it is no more than gimmickry by an extravagant government. The timing of the decision also exposes the lack of sincerity behind it.

Prime Minister Gilani, who will be known in the country’s history as the longest serving prime minister unless someone succeeding him broke the record, has been wasting the state resources for the past four years as if he was the ruler of some oil-rich state. The austerity idea struck him when he is about to complete his mandated five-year term. (Maybe, he has already served out his tenure, depending on a judgment by the Supreme Court in several petitions seeking his removal. The hearing of these petitions will start during the next few days).

The day on which the so-called austerity drive news was made public, official documents showed that an amount of Rs 702.83 million has been earmarked for the Prime Minister’s Secretariat for the next year, higher by Rs 256.26 million compared to Rs 546.57 million for the outgoing year.

Had the prime minister’s budget for the next year been reduced substantially, the austerity idea could have been taken as a sincere and serious move by a leader who is aware of the economic difficulties facing the country. But when there is such a huge increase in what the PM Secretariat will spend next year, who will believe what the finance minister told the lower house of parliament

The idea was also refuted by the situation in the presidency, for which an amount of Rs 616.708 million has been set aside for the the fiscal year 2012-2013 against Rs 482.636 million of the outgoing year. The increase has been calculated at Rs 134 million.

The budget for the presidency has been raised despite the fact that the wings of the president have been clipped through the 18th Amendment and he is no more than a titular head.

Everyone knows that it’s not the building which consumes the budget; it’s the occupant who orders how the public money should be spent. The expenditure can be brought down even without the prime minister shifting to some small house.

When the two top offices have got their budgets raised by Rs 390 million for the year – or more than Rs a million a day - compared to what they were allocated last year, who will believe that the government plans to spend the state resources honestly and more carefully?

The shipload of cabinet ministers – and the money they spend – also strongly negates the government’s commitment to go for austerity. It’s common knowledge that many insignificant departments have been created by the rulers only to accommodate their favourites. These ministers, in fact parasites, have no work to do, but they are entitled to the salaries and benefits allowed to other ministers.

Many say that the size of the federal cabinet is violative of the benchmark set by the 18th Amendment. But the rulers are least bothered. They do what they want to do, without caring for their image or the public sentiment.

Observers are of the view that the government should give up the idea of setting up an institute in the Prime Minister’s House. It will serve no useful purpose. The new prime minister, whosoever he is, will like to stay at the PM House, not the small house to be prepared for Mr Gilani.

Maybe, the new prime minister decides to construct a new house for himself. This will be more burdensome for the country. So, it’s better that the Prime Minister’s House should stay as Prime Minister’s House. And no resources should be wasted on showy things. Such measures cost more, not less.

Gen Ziaul Haq was advised in the early days of his rule to adopt money-saving measures. He agreed and decided to go to his office – which was not away from his residence - by bicycle.

A two-wheeler was purchased for him and he started using it. No doubt, the fuel was saved. But the security arrangements made for his cycling to the office and back cost much more than it used to when he used the car. The austerity plan was soon shelved.