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Not enough IAS officers to run the country

6 May. 2012 12:26 AM IST

As per a tiny newspaper report in the TOI on Saturday, there is a shortage of 1777 IAS officers in the country. Add to this the shortage of 1327 IPS officers and the picture becomes eminently clear – no one wants to join the government services. There have also been similar reports of shortages in Army officers. Why does no one want to work for the Government?
Honestly, it’s not that difficult to figure out the reasons. People work either for money or for the pride and prestige (power?) that comes with the job. In the years following independence and all the way until the beginning of the economic liberalization cycle in 1991, IAS and IPS jobs were the most coveted of all jobs. These roles provided aspirants the opportunity to serve their country and engage in nation building. Of course, the fact that there was a very small private sector – and that entrepreneurs as a class had not been truly invented – also helped push most able people towards government jobs. There was also a lot of “power” associated with government jobs, especially the IAS and IPS (as manifested in the high dowry sums they commanded in the market). Now take whatever you want from the word power; but the fact is that that was a strong reason for attracting the best.
There was another reason why government jobs were considered the best. The salary was decent; and largely comparable with what the private sector provided. The private sector itself had been caged by the License Raj; and private sector salaries were much muted. Government jobs also came with “job protection”. All factors put together, there were enough entrants into the IAS cadre. I remember when I graduated from IIM, and joined a large private bank, some of my older relatives were curious to know if I had taken up a private sector job because I hadn’t managed to get a government one!
Since 1991 however, the times have changed. There is a huge amount of consumerism all around. The shops are filled with tempting goods; and there is so much that money can buy. Today, more than ever before, money plays a crucial role in a person’s life. A person’s stature today is determined by the car he drives and the address claims as his home; not by the “powers” or “pride” his job may carry. And here’s the reality – government jobs simply do not pay enough. Especially in comparison to private sector jobs – where a shortage of talent in the last decade and a half – has led to a huge increase in salary levels. CEOs earning a crore of rupees in salaries is not uncommon. And yet the seniormost IAS officer – the Cabinet Secretary – has a take-home salary of less than Rs 1 lac a month.
Many people object to taking “take home salary” as the way to measure salaries. IAS officers get mansions to live in. They have loads of “helpers” available all the time. All that’s fine, but all that doesn’t help buy the goodies. And all that disappears the moment one retires. Having come from a family where my dad was a banker in a government bank, I know exactly how it feels post retirement.
There is also this dangerous trend of recent times to attack the character of eminent bureaucrats that has to be factored in. In today’s world, a bureaucrat who takes a wrong decision (as every manager does once in a while), is first and foremost accused of being corrupt. In our uneducated and illiterate minds, the only reason a person makes a mistake (even a genuine one) is when he is motivated by bribes. In the lifetime of a bureaucrat, the hundreds of good decisions he takes go unnoticed; the rare mistakes get magnified. In today’s world, there is active encouragement to those bureaucrats who refuse to take decisions; as long as they avoid any taint of being corrupt. Who wants to work in such an environment? High performers seek assignments where they can do a lot; not just sit on their back sides.
So the IAS offers pathetic salaries; and a very hostile environment for taking decisions and “building the nation”. Not surprising then that there is a dearth of talent. Not surprising also that the dearth of talent is especially high in states that are known for highly politicized and inefficient governance – 216 short in UP, 128 in Bihar, 118 in MP, 112 in Rajasthan and 100 in Jharkhand. Who wants to work in these states, where in addition to all that has been discussed earlier, there is the threat of person safety as well – with active Maoist movements and the ever present mafia as well. Not surprising therefore that the caliber of people joining the IAS has plummeted dramatically. And with this has plummeted the personal ethics of the cadre. Today, corruption in the IAS is a big issue – but the reasons are well known.
India needs the most talented people to join public life and government service. That’s what happens in the developed world. The European government jobs pay more than private sector ones (of course, that has created its own problems). In the US, the salaries are at least as good as, if not better than, private sector salaries. A cop in NY earns as much as 75-80,000 dollars a year after putting in 5-7 years of service. The US President earns upwards of 250,000 dollars – at least a decent sum of money (our PM earns less than Rs 1 lac a month). In Singapore, bureaucrat salaries are linked to market opportunities. It’s time that India also considers rewarding its bureaucrats much better.
In order to reward bureaucrats better, we will need to reduce headcount. The Government cannot become the job provider of the last resort. The Indian Railways employs some 16 lac people and that is supposed to be a proud statistic. Air India has some 45000 people working for it; while its rival has a number than is perhaps one quarter of that. All India Radio has some 17000 engineers on its rolls (one wonders if engineers run a media organization), while the biggest TV and radio stations have not even 1% of that number.
The real truth is that the government needs to employ fewer people, pay better, and provide a better work environment if it wants to attract better people. All simple suggestions, but extremely difficult to implement!

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Prashant Panday