Tarun Reflex

September 15, 2008

Disbanding the army of clerks

A Chief Minister, who shall remain nameless, told me in despair the other day that the latest Pay Commission was going to bankrupt several state governments. “Where are we going to get the money for development projects, for strengthening the police force, for anything at all if we spend Rs 92 out of a hundred rupees on paying salaries?” It is a question we should all be asking. Can we afford our army of clerks any more? Of the Rs 92 the Government spends on itself, more than 95 per cent goes towards paying the salaries of clerks, whose only interest in being in a government job is that it is permanent. On my travels in rural India I constantly run into young men who tell me in so many words that their big ambition is to get a ‘sarkari naukri’ because it is permanent. When I point out that jobs in the private sector pay much better salaries than the government and there are many perks as well, the invariable answer is, ‘But, they can kick you out. In a government job they cannot do that’.

A direct consequence of this self-serving approach to governance is that we continue to remain a poor country and will remain that way forever unless we find some way to get rid of our clerks. The finest schemes to fight poverty and provide our wretchedly poor people with basic education and healthcare fail to be implemented because the implementers are clerks. Our best efforts to clean our rivers, save our forests and preserve the environment fail for the same reasons. The most tragic examples of this are the Ganga and the Yamuna, whose waters remain filthy despite thousands of crores of rupees having been poured into cleaning them. The initial mistake was made by Rajiv Gandhi when he took the Ganga Action Plan prepared by INTACH and turned it into a government project.

The self-serving approach to governance afflicts not just lower division clerks but the mighty Sahibs as well. And they have developed expensive tastes. India Today recently investigated the high-flying activities of our babu log and found that even ministers did not travel as much as our officials did. “The information (obtained) throws light on the fact that 1,576 officials of the rank of director and above have travelled more than 5.65 crore km and stayed 24,458 days abroad over the past 40 months (from January 1, 2005 to April 30, 2008)”. What on earth were they doing? The short answer to that question is: holidaying. Indian taxpayers pay for them to travel first class and stay in fine hotels and we get nothing in return. They seem to travel blindfolded or they would have noticed that other countries look very different from India.

If they at least came back with new ideas on running our appalling public services or just finding systems that would make Indian cities and villages look less like slums, it would be something. I have seen cities in poorer Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia and Indonesia, which have managed to deal with waste disposal, drainage and other municipal problems so their streets do not stink of rotting garbage and open drains. With so many travelling officials, why do we have no solutions to these problems?

If all of this were not reason enough to rid India of its army of clerks, there is the additional problem of corruption. When I sat down to write this piece I tried to remember the last time I had met a senior Indian official whose children were not studying in some expensive foreign university. I could not. Where does the money come from?

Now that the latest Pay Commission has raised salaries so generously, we need to demand something in return. We need the Prime Minister to come up with a voluntary retirement scheme that would start reducing the numbers of clerks in government offices. If they do not wish to retire voluntarily, their performance needs to be assessed so that the corrupt and inefficient can be persuaded that it is in their best interests to leave quietly. One more thing that needs to be done with immediate effect is to make it possible to sack non-performing officials. Will any of this happen? Well, when Dr Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister he promised administrative reform. Nothing would improve governance more dramatically than reducing the numbers of clerks in government offices who mostly serve to obstruct the movement of files. As someone who is a keen observer of governance when I am on my travels abroad, I can report that there are few countries in the world where simple things are made as complicated as they are in India. The reason is too many clerks.

Source : The Indian Express : The Fifth Column – Tavleen Singh

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