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`Ambassador-at-large post, mission sans mandate’

Saturday 7 May 2005, by BARUAH*Amit

CAG says Rs. 15.95 crores spent was "avoidable expenditure" There was an overlap of functions carried out by him with those of the mission in Washington.

NEW DELHI: The Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) has held the Ministry of External Affairs responsible for "avoidable expenditure" to the tune of Rs. 15.95 crores on the post of ambassador-at-large created by the Vajpayee Government in New York to deal with overseas Indian affairs.

Bhishma Agnihotri was appointed to the job in September 2001 by the Vajpayee Government in a move that was widely seen at the time as a bid to appease the overseas supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

In a report presented to Parliament on Friday, the CAG said the Government did not issue any "specific and separate mandate" for the post of ambassador-at-large. "There was an overlap of functions carried out by him with those of the mission in Washington. The basis of sanctioning five India-based and five local posts, though sought by audit in March 2004, was not furnished," it said.

It pointed out that in December 2001, the United States Government refused to accredit Mr. Agnihotri as a foreign diplomat as, among other reasons, it did not recognise the rank of advisor or ambassador-at-large and could not accredit a green card holder as a diplomat.

"In April 2002, the U.S. Department of State also turned down a request made by the Indian Embassy for special dispensation. In December 2002, the ambassador-at-large was made Special Adviser to the Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations, with the rank of Ambassador," the report said.

"Functioned from a hotel"

"The office functioned from different premises in New York, from a hotel up to November 2001, from the residential accommodation of the ambassador-at-large up to April 2002, from temporary office accommodation up to October 2002 and from an accommodation leased in September 2002 for a three-year period. The expenditure occurred for hiring office accommodation till it was shifted to the new premises in October 2002 was $105,550 equivalent to Rs. 51.38 lakhs," the CAG said.

Pointing out that Rs. 15.95 crores was spent on a mission without a mandate, the CAG stated that the matter was referred to the Ministry of External Affairs in December 2004, but its reply was awaited as of January 2005.

According to the CAG, the September 2002 lease deed did not have any clause to terminate the lease on an earlier date as required under Indian Foreign Service rules. Therefore, the mission had to pay rent and other charges till the expiry of the lease period - up to August 2005 - even though the office itself was wound up in October 2004.

The report also pointed to irregularities in renting residential accommodation for Mr. Agnihotri in New York.

The mission purchased a car in August 2003 for Rs. 18.28 lakhs. Till July 2003, it hired a car incurring an expenditure of Rs. 63.39 lakhs. Though the mission had proposed leasing a car to avoid continued hiring in June 2002, there was an "inordinate delay" in the purchase, resulting in "avoidable expenditure" of Rs. 13.54 lakhs.

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