Himachal guest houses a drain on the exchequer

Shimla, June 3 (IANS) There is one class of tourists Himachal Pradesh is not happy with: bureaucrats and VIPs who burden the exchequer by thronging government guest houses as state guests.

The hills of Himachal beckon everyone when life in the plains of northern India becomes unbearable with temperatures hovering over 40 degrees Celsius.

The state has more than 750 government-run guest houses belonging to various departments.

All charges are waived for state guests. At times, the guests come with spouses or entire families.

"The government annually spends around Rs.10 crore on the maintenance (of guest houses), leave alone the huge salary bill on the staff manning them," an official who did not wish to be identified told IANS.

"But they generate a revenue of less than Rs.2 crore," the official said.

Enquiries reveal that the state annually spends some Rs.5 crore on salaries and other expenditure. The figures tell their own story, said the official.

"The frequent visits by VIPs and bureaucrats who demand accommodation in such guest houses are a matter of concern as the government is alreay fund starved," another senior official said.

"Their arrival suddenly picks up with the onset of summer and during Christmas holidays," he said.

The extended weekend holiday bonanza throughout the year also drives many to the hills.

"On an average, we get 100-150 requests daily these days about bookings in government guest houses. Over weekends, the number shoots up to 300," a hospitality and protocol department official told IANS.

The most sought after destinations are Shimla, Narkanda, Kufri, Sangla, Kasauli, Manali, Palampur, Dharamsala and Dalhousie.

The official said a normal visitor is charged Rs.2,500 plus taxes per day for a room in a state-run hotel-cum-guest house Peterhoff in Shimla.

But those who get a booking done through the state hospitality department pay just Rs.150.

From Jan 1, 2008, to Feb 2, 2010, 272 dignitaries and staff accompanying them were declared state guests by the government.

This came to light in a written reply by then BJP chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal in the assembly in 2010.

Of the state guests, judges - both serving and retired, of various high courts and the Supreme Court - were extended hospitality 65 times, Dhumal said in his reply.

In at least one case, the distinction between the state and the party clearly blurred.

This was when BJP leader L.K. Advani, along with 21 party leaders, were declared state guests Aug 18-22, 2009, when they were in Shimla for a "chintin shivir".

As leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, Advani was then entitled to state guest status - but not the 21 other leaders.

The five-day stay of Advani and the 21 other BJP leaders cost the state exchequer Rs.432,368.

Likewise, spiritual leaders Brahamrishi Kumar Swami and Anandmurti Guru Maa have also enjoyed the state's hospitality.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at vihal.g@ians.in )

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