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In an address to the nation on August 19, Prime Minister Imran Khan said he would avoid “living in extravagance” like prime ministers of the past; he said he would convert the sprawling Prime Minister House into a university, use only two of the 500-odd staff members on duty, and auction off 33 luxury vehicles ordered by the previous administration.

“The prime [minister and chief] ministers all have helicopters and aeroplanes to fly them,” Prime Minister Khan had said, decrying how the ruling elite live like “colonial masters”.

Take a look: 'PM Khan does not want to trouble people when he travels': Naeemul Haq defends use of copter

A little over 10 days later, the focus of criticism on social and traditional media is Mr Khan’s use of a helicopter to travel between the PM House (where he is to spend the working week) and his residence in Banigala (where he will spend the weekend).

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry will shockingly tell you that the cost of flying the helicopter is as low as “Rs55/km”. Another aide puts the per trip cost at Rs40,000. Local aviation experts, however, say the ballpark figure is somewhere between Rs200,000 and Rs300,000.

So what is the actual cost — and does it even matter?

Enter Augusta

The helicopter in question is reportedly the Augusta Westland 139, a twin-engine aircraft which is usually procured by the Pakistan government from Italian aerospace and defence firm Leonardo-Finmeccanica.

Financial cost of govt’s austerity declaration is debatable, but security risks are high

According to New Jersey-based magazine Business Jet Traveler, a brand new Leonardo AW139 helicopter with a passenger capacity of eight is priced at $11 million.

The magazine enlists the breakdown of costs for the AW139 as follows:

The information is contradictory to the figures floated by the government.

So why does the prime minister use a costly mode of transport in an era of austerity? A close aide says Mr Khan hates having to stop traffic. “He has always decried VIP culture, so he does not want to stop traffic now that he is PM.”

In a talk show on Geo, PTI’s Hammad Azhar said travelling by copter from Banigala is “less costly” if you consider the deployment of security personnel on the ground if he travels by road.

Azhar adds: “Besides, in the last government helicopters were used as if they were Qingqi rickshaws to transport food from here to there for personal use.”

PML-N Senator Mussadiq Malik agrees that if a prime minister wants to use a helicopter for security or convenience, there should be no objection. “It is their conversation around this topic which is so extreme,” he tells Dawn.

“Why is it that if Nawaz Sharif uses a heli, it is called a Qingqi, but if Imran Khan uses it then it is termed productivity?”

Of kitchen expenses and staff

The decision to scrap lavish meals in meetings was also one of the PTI’s promises.

“Do you see that we are not even serving you biscuits?” Fawad Chaudhry said when interviewed for this story.

“If meetings are not spent eating, efficiency is increased. After heavy meals, one feels drowsy.”

A civil servant who has served with various governments shares that his best meals were in the time of Mian Nawaz Sharif: “The food I have tasted in his tenure, I have never had that kind of food in my life. It was excellent.”

But even as critics vilify Mr Sharif for excesses in his time, Senator Malik — who served as his spokesperson — brushes it aside. “I didn’t find anything so lavish. Yes, Mian sahib is a picky eater. But all kitchen expenses were paid from his pocket.”

He turns his attention to the government’s decision to limit use of staff and convert the PM House into a university. “If the PM is living on the premises, security and staffing costs are the same unless the staff is fired. And there is no question of converting PM House into a university. Will students be frisked each day? Anyone could have a clear target of several government buildings.”

Other critics joke that auctioning helicopters would earn the state more money than auctioning cars.

So what does this mean for austerity?

“The idea behind austerity is that if we are asking people to trust us, people should believe that the money they are paying [taxes] is safe with us,” says Mr Chaudhry. “[These steps] may not have a very big financial [saving], but it has a huge symbolic value. You have to start with symbolism.”

Risks and hope

Security analysts fear that the lengthy televised discussions on travel and security protocols of government officials are putting them at risk.

“The ongoing discussions on the specific travel plans of the PM are counterproductive,” says security analyst Norbert Almeida. “They have the potential to compromise the security arrangements in a country where previously attacks have been carried out on convoys of senior government officials.”

He adds: “The government is well-equipped to manage the security of the PM and the decision on the appropriate measures must simply be left to the dedicated security officials.”

Another security expert, retired Brigadier Mehmood, says there is no reason why the prime minister should not live in the PM House. “The PM House has been designed for protection. These officials should stay in the PM House or Governor House because other residences may not be secure. These announcements are not going to solve people’s problems.”

Is it then prudent of the government to announce these largely cosmetic measures?

“I think these are important first steps which do hold value within a context where there has been so much debate and criticism about expenditure of past governments,” says journalist Nasim Zehra.

“Obviously, they have to very quickly move on to tackling concrete things such as the economic crisis and make other substantive reforms; but this is a good first symbolic move.”

Ms Zehra says the heated debates on the media are a symptom of a highly polarised society which is “getting back at PTI because of how PTI has conducted itself” in the past.

“The morale has been low for several decades,” she says. “Imran Khan’s speech raised hopes and where there are hope and expectations, there will be questions.”

Published in Dawn, August 31st, 2018