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How Babus did during the Pandemic: A report card

By Subhomoy Bhattacharjee
January 18, 2021 08:34 IST
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The Covid pandemic has left a question mark on how the central government manages its staff.
Subhomoy Bhattacharjee reports.

IMAGE: Kindly note that this image has only been posted for representational purposes. Photograph: Mahipal Soni/

It is a Monday morning in December 2020, past 10 am. Government employees across the country have already trooped in to their offices and are settling down to work.

Or are they? The detailed dashboard set up by the ministry of electronics and information technology (MEITY) since 2015 to track the attendance on real time of employees, shows a flat graph.

Quite against the general perception, the number of central government employees beyond rail, defence and home (both civilian) is just over 418,000 across the country. Yet even this feeble size is not often brought into use as the pandemic this year showed.

From the last week of March 2020, when the country went into the first of its lockdowns, the government has done away with the need for its employees to log into the attendance portal.

Since most of the staffers would not be in office, it was felt it would be difficult for them to use their Aadhaar number to show the time they have checked in and the time when they have checked out.

The MEITY attendance system works on laptops or desktops anywhere, as long as the employee has the log in credentials, but in Delhi, for instance, very few of the 289,776 employees registered on the portal have checked in since then. It has been the same picture throughout the year.

If the employees cannot log in to even mark their attendance, their presence online for work through the day is also sporadic.

Senior government employees agree, though none of them are willing to come on record. "Unless I ring up, I don't get to know my staff is at work. It should have been the other way, but we did not write this rule."

Has the absence, real or perceived, of junior employees, slowed down the pace of government work? It is important to get some sense of this because 2020 was like a lab study of how well the government uses its employees.

Thinly staffed even at normal times

There are some headline numbers which are often confusing. The Indian government employs 3,500,941 people as its civilian staff, as per finance ministry data. Of them, about half or 1,688,799 are employed in the railways and the postal services.

Another 1.3 million work in the home and defence ministries as non-uniformed employees but perform security related work.

Excluding them from this exercise means the core of the Indian government, as the Seventh Pay Commission notes, is very thin.

For instance, the lockdown from the end of March stopped all employees from coming to office below the rank of deputy secretary.

As of 2015, the number of all these people from under secretaries, section officers, assistants, stenographers), lower and upper division clerks was just 23,860 (excluding rail, posts, defence and home).

The number of officers from directors upward to the secretary is less than two thousand. Of course, this number will expand once those in attached or subordinate offices are included, such as those in the income tax office.

These employees move across departments and perform myriad tasks that keep the government busy. They begin their career in specific roles, but are supposed to be able to pick up assignments anywhere else later in their jobs.

While the initial set of circulars since March allowed only deputy secretary to secretary level officers to physically come to work from end of April, the rules were subsequently relaxed to permit a third of the junior government employees to attend office.

Those with pre-existing illnessess among any class of employees were advised to work from home.

From the middle of May, the one-third number was expanded to 50 per cent. Even then, the staffers were asked to come to office in batches.

As late as October, this rule was not been diluted. A major support service for these employees -- the departmental canteens -- were shut down in all offices and were not allowed to reopen till December.

Inter-year score

In this exercise we evaluate the role of the government only in the ministries. Surprising as it may seem, it was the 2,000-odd officers who were, for the better part of April, running the show in the core of the government. The data for performance shows this thin strength has not substantially crippled the work of the government.

A measure of government productivity is the number of files sent for approvals to the Union Cabinet.

Most government work ultimately leads up to a proposal for a Cabinet-level decision, either as an investment or as a project or as a scheme. Some of them get settled at a slightly junior level in the Public Investment Board or a tad lower at the Expenditure Finance Committee.

Inter-year data from these bodies come with a lag. Cabinet decisions are, however, available on the same day.

In 2019, there were 161 decisions by the cabinet in the March to December period. In 2020 this had almost halved to 87 at the same time. The government had slowed up, it seems.

Look closer, however, and one notices that except for November and December, the Cabinet performances have been almost identical even after factoring in almost a month of total lockdown in April last year.

The number of approvals by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs, at 33 in the comparable nine months is close to 43 recorded in 2019.

Of course, each ministry, depending on how pressing its role was, set out its own way to count the numbers present and absent.

Everything considered, there is no doubt that the lockdown had a large impact on the presence of staff in the offices, especially in Delhi and even Mumbai where some of the key government offices are situated.

Take another piece of evidence -- the number of bills passed by Parliament. The passage of any bill through Parliament is a humungous exercise for a department.

Year 2020 has had only two sessions, the Budget session and the Monsoon session. Yet, while in 2019, as many as 48 Acts were passed, this year the number was 25. This is a fantastic achievement for a machinery so whittled down for the better part of the year.

Shiva Gopal Mishra, secretary of the joint consultative machinery representing central government employees, does not agree that the absence of the junior staff was not felt.

"All employees took great risks, despite Covid, to attend to their tasks. They were present wherever they were needed and this has been recognised by the department of personnel and training," he said.

However the list of monthly performance sheets put out by the department of personnnel and training shows no particular level of difference between the same months of 2019 and 2020.

It is not that the extra employees were getting in each other's way in the various Bhawans in central Delhi and elsewhere. There simply aren't that many of them.

It does seem, though, that the presence or absence of the supporting staff did not make much of a difference to the working of the departments concerned.

Overworked at senior level

To understand why the absence of the supporting staff was not felt, one has to recognise the way the working pattern within the central government has changed over the past decade and a half.

It was expected earlier that a junior employee, usually known as a desk officer, shall begin a note on a subject, adding in references from various sources.

This note shall wind its way up the department travelling to an under secretary, then a deputy secretary and often a director before landing up with the head of the bureau or department, a joint secretary.

It fell to the joint secretary to frame an alternative set of government proposals in response to the note from the department.

For instance, in the erstwhile Foreign Investment Promotion Board, it was the joint secretary who set up the reasons for government approval or rejection when a foreign investor applied for permission to put in additional equity or debt in her business or to change the nature of those holdings.

An important role that the junior staff did was to manage the records of the government actions, storing the files in deep set almirahs and desks, that decorated plenty of the rooms in these offices. The wide-ranging adoption of e-filing in every government department has eliminated this role. Officers have the references they need at the click of a button.

"Even translation of documents across languages, a key role for non-executive employees have become so machine based," said a secretary-level officer in one of the departments.

Beyond security, law and order and other commercial enterprises like Railways, as the responsibilities of government functioning have become more sophisticated, the role of the junior employees have got clipped.

They are not to blame. The Pay Commission makes the valid point that there is no skill mapping within the government of what is needed. The annual curriculum of training institutions like Institute of Secretariat Training and Management of the department of personnel and training is peppered with courses on file management, translation skills and leave rules.

An employee who might wish to learn anti-dumping issues or health communication has no obvious place to teach herself.

"A lot of the new recruits to Group C could be better trained in IT-related stuff. The government, for instance, gets a lot of its data analysis/data collection through outsourcing, which in the new system could be generated by these employees who become proficient with such technical work," said a former secretary, department of administrative reforms and public grievances.

The Commission notes, 'Based on the medium-term goals and priorities of the government, a determination of skills and competencies required to meet them needs to be made across Central Government ministries and departments. This will have implications both for recruitment policy as well as the size and composition of the government.'

As a result, when foreign investors come to the officers, usually their only port of call is the joint secretaries or directors. Proposals for levy of duties get discussed with the tax experts at the finance ministry and so on.

Since the government has added very few in-house additional reference centres to aid in the working of its officers, the junior staff often have very little domain expertise to add. Notes are therefore often written out at the level of officers and sent up directly for adoption or rejection by the secretaries and the ministers concerned.

Take the example of the Central Board of Direct Taxes in the finance ministry. There are 13 officers of the rank of under secretary and above to that of joint secretary at the Tax Planning Unit.

The Tax Planning Unit writes all the tax laws for the country every year, poring in statistics, inputs from all interest groups and so on into their work. But they deploy no officers below the rank of under secretary to assist them. There are 37 posts of section officers in the CBDT office at North Block who can be called upon, though.

The picture is more or less the same at other key departments of the government. There is often no clear understanding of what the roles of junior employees should be. Divergence in roles has been the key reason why the government was able to function effectively.

Mishra, who is also the general secretary, All India Railwaymens Federation, said the railway employees performed a sterling role during the lockdown running the special trains, despite the risk of catching the infection themselves. He is right. The Railway operations was impossible to undertake without the presence of all the necessary staff.

But that does not hold true for other government departments. Like many things else the Covid pandemic has also left a question mark on how the central government manages its staff.

As the former secretary noted, "The exercise for revamping should be started at the earliest as for any reform to come through takes time as consultations at all levels are needed."

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Subhomoy Bhattacharjee in New Delhi
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