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An Agnipath for the IAS?

The permanent civil service has certain strengths and drawbacks. An Agnipath is needed to reimagine it.

An Agnipath for the IAS?

By Srivatsa Krishna

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The country, in its collective conscience, needs to decide what it wants its government to do. At present, it expects governments to fix potholes on our roads, put men on the moon, bail out failing private airlines, and rescue private banks after they are rampaged by their promoters, apart from delivering water, electricity, caste/income certificates, pensions, flood/drought relief, promoting tourism and running hotels, etc. The attendant question that we shy of asking is: If the government should do all this and more, what is the correct level of taxation to enable it to do so? Everyone expects Scandinavia-like healthcare quality but with Bermuda/Bahamas-like tax rates! Is this feasible for any country, much less one with such complexity and poverty?

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The above is a perfect segue to move to the central question of the size and nature of government. Of the 30 states, 26 suffer from a shortage of IAS officers. Of the 6,789 sanctioned strength of the IAS, there are 5,317 officers in place, of which only 3,862 are direct regular recruits (RRs). Of course, in large states like Uttar Pradesh, with almost 600 officers, the joke is that, at any point in time, the chief secretary wouldn’t even know the names of all the officers, much less if they are present or missing!

Per popular folklore that the economy grows when the government sleeps, the economy should have been galloping right now. But it definitely isn’t! While absolutely accurate data is hard to collate, many World Bank, ILO, OECD, and Institute of Conflict Management studies indicate that India has one of the lowest civil servants per 100,000 people. For the sake of comparison, India’s central government officials (including Railways) number 364 per 100,000 people as compared to 864 of the US Federal Government. US state and local officials are at 5,989 per 100,000, whereas India’s state officials vary between 311 (Bihar and Bengal) to 5,805 (Nagaland). India’s total government employee count stands at about 17,697,684, of which 10,538,542 work in the states (including the police and defence services).

What is even more worrisome is that of the above, less than 10% of employees of central and state governments are ranked in Class 1 and 2! India today has one of the highest-quality higher civil service, sitting atop one of the lowest-quality lower bureaucracy.

The key question: Are these many employees enough to carry out multiple, complex, and often complicated functions of government? Also, how well-trained and competent are they to carry out the extremely different kinds of tasks, an illustrative sample of which is mentioned above? The fact remains that in the last 20 years, alongside the rapid growth of the private sector, high-quality middle-level talent has not come the government’s way, leading to large-scale outsourcing of many government functions. While outsourcing comes with its advantages, it is not an unmixed blessing either.

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In this context, prime minister Narendra Modi’s visionary Mission Karmayogi can make a significant impact if executed well. Unlike the corporate sectors, where there often are willing horses who need to be made to drink water, in governments, it is often a mix of willing and unwilling horses and other random animals, which need to be often dragged to the water and made to drink from it.

That the government needs to get out of many areas is a perfectly valid argument. In practice, due to various pressures from a myriad of democratic and other forces, it does not happen, and the government remains everywhere, from the mother’s womb to the grave and even the afterlife! All of the above leads to the central question as to why should governments not have something akin to Agnipath for both middle- and senior-level civil servants. Is this a good solution to tackle the 1,500-2,000-officer deficit we face today? Or is it better to continue to have each officer hold two charges or more in most states?

Recruitment should be through the stringent norms of the Union Public Service Commission; however, it should be only for a period of 10 years either at junior levels (with work experience of 0-5 years), middle levels (10-15 years prior experience), and senior levels (15-20 years prior experience). It could be a mix of five years at the Centre and five at the state for each level, to get the experience of states and Centre to each other. The same All India Services rules should be applicable to them too. What is important is that the experience should be relevant and should beef up the service delivery and efficiency of both central and state governments. At the end of the 10-year period at each of the levels, there can be an option to stay if both sides are willing after a thorough evaluation by UPSC or the officer moves on. Given their rich experience in governance, they will be a good catch for the private sector, think tanks, industry associations, etc. Short service commissions were tried earlier, too, in the 1960s and 1970s to boost intake for the civil services, but that was for permanent intake. A competitively recruited permanent civil service has some remarkable advantages. The proposed programme will only supplement and not supplant the existing steel frame. They should be compensated handsomely, higher than prevailing salaries in the government, but without any other benefits. This is broadly the norm in most of the developed countries around the world. Despite all the noise surrounding it, Agnipath is an excellent programme that takes care of the immediate needs of our Armed Forces and makes a dent in the unemployment rate of the country. There is no reason why a similar programme should not be designed to give both the Union and state governments much-needed six-pack abs at the middle and cutting-edge levels of governance at the officer levels (unlike at the jawan level, as envisaged in Agnipath).

Society needs to understand and accept the fact that the government’s function is not to be an MNREGA for it. The government should not be the first resort for employment generation; however, it should be able to offer sufficient opportunities both as a direct provider as also as a provisioner of services in partnership with the private sector. All recruitment in the public sector should happen towards these ends only. It should not be employment for the sake of employment; otherwise, the shocking numbers above will continue to get perpetuated, and India’s wait to become a $30-trillion economy will also be endless.

The writer IAS officer | Twitter: @srivatsakrishna

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