New Delhi, April 9 (IANS) President Pratibha Patil is undertaking what could possibly be her last foreign trip before she ends her five-year tenure in July - a 12-day trip to two African countries, Seychelles and South Africa.
This trip by the country's first woman president comes even as questions have been raised over the extravagance of her 12 foreign trips covering 22 countries across four continents.
A series of Right to Information applications have shown that her trips since she assumed office in July 2007 cost the exchequer a whopping Rs.205 crore ($40 million). This, the RTI said, surpasses the record of all her predecessors.
She has visited Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Bhutan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Spain, Poland, Russia, Tajikistan, Britain, Cyprus, China, Laos, Cambodia, the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Mauritius, South Korea, Mongolia, Switzerland and Austria. She spent a total of 79 days abroad.
RTI applications have also shown that her predecessor A.P.J. Abdul Kalam took seven trips to 17 countries, while K.R. Narayanan covered 10 countries in six trips and S.D. Sharma 16 countries in four trips.
"I don't want to comment on President Patil. All I can say is that president Zail Singh undertook the least number of foreign trips by any president," Tarlochan Singh, former media advisor to Zail Singh, told IANS.
He said Zail Singh, in his 1982-87 tenure, undertook just six foreign trips.
"He never took his relatives, only his daughter. Also, only six members of his personal staff used to travel with him. He also used a smaller plane and only six journalists used to travel with him," Tarlochan Singh added.
Said Subhash Chandra Aggarwal, an RTI activist: "Undoubtedly, goodwill trips by the head of the nation to foreign countries are necessary. But spending such a huge amount by the president, who happens to be just a symbolic head, on such trips each time with about 100 trip-members on a Boeing 747 can by no means be held justified."
Agrawal, whose RTI showed that president's personal guests and family members, including her son-in-law and grandchildren, were part of the foreign jaunts, said: "It is time budget for Rashtrapati Bhawan is drastically cut including for presidential trips in India and abroad.
"No relation other than the spouse of president may be allowed to travel on such trips at the cost of the public exchequer," Agrawal told IANS.
According to a Rashtrapati Bhavan official, the president's trip has been planned keeping in mind the requirement and political engagements in mind.
"The departure date (for Africa) is not yet confirmed. It could be either April 27 or April 28. She is returning on May 8. But the trip is 12-day long because of her various engagements," the official told IANS.
The official also said that in South Africa, the president will visit various places associated with Mahatma Gandhi.
"The president has close affinity with Gandhi's philosophy and South Africa is where it all began," the official added. The seeds of protest in Gandhi were sown during his early days in South Africa.
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