Call to open poorly-used Indian presidential retreats

Shimla retreat
Image caption The Shimla retreat has never opened to the public

Indian presidents have visited two vast presidential retreats just six times in five years, despite the estates costing millions of rupees in maintenance and workers' salaries.

The number was revealed in a request under the Right to Information Act and relate to incumbent Pratibha Patil and predecessor APJ Abdul Kalam.

The homes are in Shimla and Hyderabad.

Hyderabad has only been opened once to the public and Shimla never, sparking calls for more public access.

'Better use'

Few official residential premises of a head of state can match the splendour of the Rashtrapati Bhawan in Delhi.

But in addition to this, the president of India has two retreats, in Shimla and Hyderabad, vast mansions that are kept constantly pristine.

But the Right to Information Act request shows that the president visited the Shimla retreat just once in the five years to July this year, while the state head paid five visits to the Hyderabad retreat during the same period.

Image caption Mrs Patil and other presidents have a hectic schedule

The information relates to four years under current President Pratibha Patil and a year under Mr Kalam.

The president's official website says of Shimla: "The president visits the retreat at least once a year and the core office shifts to that place during the stay in the retreat."

But since assuming office in July 2007, President Patil has visited the Shimla retreat just once - from 27 May to 1 June 2008.

Mr Kalam did not visit it in his last year.

Prior information on visits was not available.

Mr Kalam did go to the Hyderabad retreat in June 2006 for three days.

Before her July visit this year, Mrs Patil stayed there for five days in December 2007, 16 in December 2008 to January 2009 and eight in December 2010.

Several million rupees are spent every year on paying salaries of employees at the two retreats.

At Shimla alone, the annual wages of the 13 gardeners and a caretaker staff worker total around three million rupees ($59,000).

As many as 35 contractual staff and three regular workers are employed at the Rastrapati Nilayam in Hyderabad.

The wages of the three regular workers total about 750,000 rupees annually, while the contractual staffers are paid 224 rupees a day.

A number of police personnel are also deployed at the retreats.

Although the hectic schedule of a president may understandably prevent them from going to the retreats, the lack of attendance has spurred calls for greater public access.

Locals as well as tourists, especially in Shimla, are angry that they are not allowed near.

"The retreat can be put to better use," says Gian Chand, a hotel owner in Shimla.

"We realise the need to protect the president. But the public will really appreciate it if the retreat is thrown open to them, especially when he or she doesn't plan to come."

JS Lalringum, under secretary at the president's secretariat, says the Shimla retreat has never been opened to the public, though the public were allowed access to the Nilayam in Hyderabad once - for 10 days last year.

The Shimla retreat is some 15km (nine miles) from the crowded town, on a hill top at Mashobra. Built in 1850, the building is spread over an area of 10,000 sq ft. It was taken over in 1895 by the viceroy.

Because of its picturesque surroundings, Mashobra is a popular tourist spot, with the cottage of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra next to the retreat an added tourist attraction.

The Rastrapati Nilayam building was taken over from the Nizam of Hyderabad after India attained independence and was handed to the President's Secretariat. Constructed in 1860, the building has 90 acres of land.

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