Neither civil, nor serving

Updated: Aug 10 2003, 05:30am hrs
What is the business of a government The question has been debated over the years, but there is no resolution in sight. In India, if governments take two steps forward in re-inventing themselves, soon thereafter they take one step backward.

Some things, however, have become clear. These relate to public goods, in the language of economists. Law and order, delivery of justice, education (especially school education), medical care roads etc are public goods. There is a new theory that even public goods need not be delivered by a government alone, and that there can be a public-private partnership for the delivery of public goods. I do not wish to go into the merits of that issue, but one thing is clear and that is that the Government cannot withdraw from its responsibility to deliver public goods.

Even in the most capitalist of capitalist countries, the responsibility of delivering public goods is shouldered by the government. No one will dare to suggest that the National Health System in Britain should be dismantled or that the great State Universities in the US that compete with the great private universities should be closed down. In the Asian way of doing things, governments run or manage airlines and ports (Singapore), industries (Taiwan) and tourism (Thailand).

The size of the civil service in many countries is quite large. The average for Asia is reported to be 2.6 employees per 100 people, and for the OEC countries it is 7.7 per 100 (India Sustaining Reform, Reducing Poverty, a World Bank report, July 2003). By contrast the number of civil servants in India is only 1.4 per 100. Around 3.4 million people are employed in civil posts by the Central Government, all the states put together employ about six million and there are another four million who are working as teachers and health workers in government and grant-in-aid institutions.

Is the size of Indias civil service too large Are government servants over-paid and pampered Are the people of India well served by these government servants. These questions have come into focus once again following the recent strike of government employees and teachers in Tamil Nadu and the judgement of the Supreme Court.

Take size. The numbers indicate that size of Indias civil service is not too large. The problem is with the structure of the civil service. We need more teachers, but we have more clerks. We need more health workers, but we have more peons. We need more nurses, but we have more typists. Ninety-three per cent of government employees are what is called Class III and Class IV government servants. They are support staff. They fetch and carry for the Class I and Class II officers.

They add little value, save pelf and prestige to their immediate bosses. The bosses cannot do without them. The old Indian tradition of having numerous household servants has simply been carried into government offices.

As an extension, senior police offices keep policemen in their homes to do household chores and senior military officers have orderlies the more senior the more the number of orderlies.

The answer to the problem is to revise the structure of the civil service, abolish some categories of jobs, redefine each job, retrain existing personnel and ensure that each government servant contributes value to the work of government. We need to re-invent government, not downsize it or altogether abolish it.

Are government servants overpaid The question is a loaded one. If an employee in the like category in the private sector is underpaid, then by comparison, it may appear that the government servant is overpaid. The correct question is, are government servants adequately remunerated In most categories, I think, they receive adequate remuneration, perquisites and other non-monetary benefits.

But in some categories, civil servants are grossly underpaid. For example, judges, university teachers and soldiers are underpaid, and that is why governments have difficulty in finding qualified persons for these jobs. Scientists and researchers are also underpaid, and this is one of the factors why the best among them migrate.

As a percentage of GDP, the governments wage bill is not too high, despite the Fifth Pay Commission. In the 1996-97 list before the pay report, it was 1.2 per cent of the GDP. The Pay Commissions award boosted it to 1.6 per cent in 1997-98, but with the passage of time, the impact has tapered. In 2000-01, the ratio was only 1.4 per cent of the GDP and it will come down further. The real problem lies in the states which implemented the Control Pay Commissions recommendations without reference to their own parlous financial position. In many states, civil service salary and allowances have crossed 5 per cent of the states GDP. In Orissa and Rajasthan, for example, in 1998-99, the proportions were 9.1 per cent and 8.6 per cent respectively.

The real problem is not about size or salary levels. It is about how well the civil service serves the people of the country. The popular perception is that civil servants are neither civil nor servants. It is widely believed that they neglect their duties, ignore the peoples needs, are self-serving and rude, and are corrupt. The civil service, as a whole, does not seem to reflect on this general perception. The gulf between the people and the civil service has grown wider over the years. As a result, when government employees go on strike, as they did recently in Tamil Nadu, they receive little support from the people. Many people felt, I believe wrongly, that the government employees deserved the mass dismissals imposed on them by the state government. If the people think that they are not well served by the civil service, and if civil servants do not feel obliged to serve the people faithfully, the stage is set for bad governance. That is what we see in most places.

(The author is a former Union finance minister)