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Pay hike for govt staff: What about guarantee of output?

August 18, 2008 12:00 IST
Any increase in the emoluments for government servants raises the hackles of the aam aadmi.

Conversely, any strong action against them and their unions such as what Margaret Thatcher, as the British prime minister, or Jayalalithaa, as the Tamil Nadu chief minister, took to discipline them invariably makes him rapturous beyond description.

The reason is not unknown to government personnel.

There has never been a time since Independence when the aam aadmi has felt that they have given him anything other than short shrift. On the contrary, his lot at their hands has been perennially one of being fleeced and driven from pillar to post.

No doubt bearing India's national character in mind, C Rajagopalchari warned in 1921 that a time would soon come when the people would look back on the British rule with longing.

The treatment that the aam aadmi receives is like from colonial overlords. And not the aam aadmi alone. Even eminent public figures and persons who have retired from high positions encounter a wall of indifference and discourtesy.

Service delivery

Let us first take service delivery which is of paramount importance to the aam aadmi. Already, there are outbursts of discontent in the form of obstruction of traffic, destruction of public property and violence by the people when faced with callousness and corruption in providing their legitimate entitlements.

Evidence from surveys of the people's perception of the working of grassroots service agencies is revealing: In a survey in Karnataka, of the 78 per cent of households using government (or government-aided) schools, only 16 per cent reported being 'fully satisfied' with the behaviour of their child's teacher. Only one per cent was fully satisfied in Punjab, three per cent in Orissa, five per cent in Haryana, and six per cent in Rajasthan.

Similarly, while 72 per cent of households used the Public Distribution System (PDS), less than one in ten were fully satisfied with the quantity, quality, or fairness of the system.

Problems with access and satisfaction tend to be much worse in states like Assam, Bihar, Orissa, Rajasthan, and West Bengal which figured the lowest in a ranking of the quality of service delivery across 16 major Indian states.

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen also, in the course of the Hiren Mukherjee memorial talk on August 11 in the Central Hall of Parliament, expressed his distress at similar findings of the Pratichi Trust set up by him for instances of poor service delivery, especially in elementary education and health care with large-scale absenteeism by government-appointed teachers and doctors.

The World Bank too has come down heavily on the lack of a spirit of dedication and a sense of urgency in government departments, and used strong language by describing the quality of governance in Indian States as 'appalling.'

Says the Bank: 'High wages with little accountability for actual service delivery make public sector agencies an obvious target for patronage hiring, which results at times in massive overstaffing. The Mumbai Municipal Water Corporation has 35 workers per thousand connections, whereas well-functioning utilities have about 3 per thousand. The UP Irrigation Department employs an astonishing 110,000 people... The overstaffing often comes at very low levels of the organization. ...about 70 per cent of all government employees are support staff unrelated to public services-drivers, peons, clerks.'

'While there are millions of dedicated civil servants-teachers, health workers, policemen, engineers, registration officials-attempting to do their jobs well in spite of the systems that work against this, it also cannot be denied that all too often attempts to seek services from the public sector encounter workers who are absent, incompetent, indifferent, and outright corrupt.'

The impression is widespread that few public functionaries -- whether in government, public sector, or local bodies -- paid out of taxpayers' money feel answerable to anyone, least of all to the public, for timely completion of tasks entrusted to them or for performing the services expected of them.

It is seen from the Annual Report for 2006-07 of the ministry of statistics and programme implementation that, of the total of 840 uncompleted projects as on October 1, 2006, 294 have contributed to time and/or cost overruns in relation to their original estimates.

While the time overrun ranged between 1 and 195 months, the cost overrun resulted in a 14.45 per cent increase (or a whopping Rs 45,870.55 crore) from the original estimates.

Wage differential

An adverse comparison is often made in wages obtaining in the public and private sectors. At least in the 1990s, in the period after liberalisation, according to the World Bank, '...public sector wages grew much faster than private sector regular job wages or informal casual work. Real wages in the public sector increased by 44 per cent over this period-increasing the public sector premium for (observationally) equivalent workers from 48 to 68 per cent.'

What with the pay hikes resulting from the recommendations of the central Fifth and Sixth Pay Commissions, and being adopted in their entirety by the states for their employees (whose duties and responsibilities can by no stretch of imagination be deemed to be on par with those of the central government), it is a fair guess that the differentials between the public and private sectors would only have further tilted in favour of public sector functionaries.

The only difference is private sector employees are forced to adhere to minimum criteria of efficiency on pain of losing their jobs, while government personnel suffer from no such pressure.

Finance Minister P Chidambaram has confidently ruled out any perceptible impact on inflation and fiscal deficit of the additional burden this year of Rs 22,131 crore (Rs 15,717 crore on the general Budget and Rs 6,414 crore on the Railway Budget) including payment of 40 per cent of the arrears of Rs 29,373 crore. The prime minister's Economic Advisory Council, on the other hand, is not so sure.

In any case, Mr Chidambaram has glossed over the total effect on the economy when the increases of the magnitude envisaged are made applicable to all their employees by the state governments. May it be remembered that nearly 90 per cent of the states' revenues are drained away by salaries with only a minuscule portion left for the fulfillment of the people's needs.

May it also be remembered that in the aftermath of giveaways following the Fifth Pay Commission, nearly half the number of states almost went bankrupt without the money even to pay salaries. Mr finance minister, please take note: Soon there is going to be a queue of chief ministers at your doors asking for massive grants to let them off the hook.

One way of warding off the threat of the nation's finances being thrown into a disarray consequent on the election-eve magnanimity shown by the government is to bring about an all round increase in both productivity and production.

The Fifth Pay Commission had made its recommendations conditional upon the government prescribing and enforcing stringent standards of productivity and output by each grade of employees, and weeding out employees who are surplus, as also those who consistently fail to measure up to the performance yardsticks.

Both the central and state governments neatly gave the pre-condition a slip with the result there was only give on their side and no take from the employees. At least this time, they should be strong-willed and unsparing in getting work out of the employees who are lethargic and callous, even in the teeth of protests of the unions.

Now a word about the security personnel, which include defence forces, para-military formations and the police. The aam aadmi does not have any interface with the defence forces in his quotidian existence, and is prepared to go by the picture painted of them as being ever prepared to lay down their lives in the defence of the nation.

They certainly have given a good account of themselves whenever called upon to assist the civil administration in times of natural calamities and violent disorders. Siachen and Kargil would ever remain the high watermarks of their valour and bravery. The other pillars of the security architecture too have an honourable record.

Even so, there is evidence of indiscipline, love of luxury, wastefulness and even corruption creeping into the higher levels, militating against the nation getting the maximum bang for every buck spent on them.

The recommendations of the Arun Singh committee of the mid-1980s on toning up the performance of the armed forces are yet to see the light of day. It is necessary to inject greater transparency, consistent with national security into their working.

B S Raghavan retired from the Indian Administrative Service after serving in senior positions.

B S Raghavan