The Agnipath scheme and the opposition to it last week completely overshadowed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nudge to all the central ministries, departments and PSUs to fill up the 8.72 lakh vacancies over the next 18 months. Even as some newspapers commented that such a scale of hiring is beyond the ken of the existing recruiting agencies, and may add to the fiscal deficit, it is important to place the issue of public sector employment in perspective – both in terms of the critical shortages in human resources, as well as from the point of view of the budgetary outlays.
It must be mentioned that the figure of 8.72 million is for the Union government, whereas the bulk of the employment in health, education, agriculture, infrastructure, and policing comes under the 28 state governments and eight Union Territories. It would therefore not be unrealistic to peg the total vacancy position in the country at somewhere between 25 to 30 lakh.
While the thrust of all governments has been to create employment and opportunities in the private sector, there can be no denial that unless the existing vacancies in the government are filled up, the country will not be able to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the UN, which India has endorsed by 2030.
Understaffed and badly performing
Contrary to public perception, the government is understaffed in every single department, starting with the elite All India Services (AIS) – the IAS and IPS. Of the total sanctioned strength of 11,697 posts for both these services, only 9,279 are currently filled, with 2,418 positions, or 20 per cent of the posts still being vacant. The forest service is better placed with less than 10 per cent vacancies for the IFS and the SFS, but the rangers’ and forest guards have a staggering shortage of over 30 per cent. This affects on-ground performance because it involves field visits, inspections and interactions with stakeholders.
While it is possible for AIS officers to hold additional charges, especially at the senior level, dual charges do not work well at the level of the primary health centres (PHCs) or the Block office or the police station. Unless the full contingent of the workforce is available, the administration’s performance falls short of the target, or worse, relevant boxes are ticked on paper to make it appear that things are under control. So, if the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD) is reporting five lakh vacancies at the level of constables across the country, the situation is grim – and while some work can be rationalised by the application of IT, AI, and procedural simplifications like online FIRs and technology applications like CCTVs to challan traffic violators automatically, the expectation of the community from police are rising exponentially.
With regard to health, two years ago, the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare informed Parliament that India had only one doctor for every 1,457 people. As per WHO norms, India would require an additional six lakh doctors and 10 lakh nurses. The shortfall in rural India is worse.
We now turn our attention to education, especially primary education. The National Education Policy (NEP) is great, but one has to acknowledge that 1.1 lakh schools in India are single-teacher entities. The country needs to recruit more than 10 lakh teachers to meet the NEP norms, and in the remoter districts, the number of vacancies is as high as 69 per cent.
The big agriculture gap
With regard to agriculture, let us remember that in the heydays of the Green Revolution, the extension services had a threefold connect with the agriculture universities, the state department and the farmers. The extension worker spoke the language of the farmer and ensured that the ‘lab-to-land transfer’ was effective.
However, as against the norm of one extension worker for every 700 farm families, the figure stands at one functionary for 1,200 families now. The Dalwai committee established to double farmers’ incomes recommended that this be addressed on utmost priority.
Agriculture extension is closely related to the research being carried out in the agriculture universities such as Punjab Agricultural University, GB Pant Agriculture University in Uttarakhand and Bidhan Chandra Krishi Vishwavidalya in Bengal. All three have been trifurcated to create new universities – either for a specific geography, or sub-discipline.
Though the number of graduates and PhDs has increased, there is a marked decline in the quality of research and its application in these universities because their faculty strength is less than the numbers envisaged for them when they were established.
Imagine the counterfactual – if these universities had filled up all their teaching and research jobs – Punjab’s agriculture would have moved out of the wheat-rice cycle a decade ago, saved its water table and emerged as the hub for dairying and horticulture, and added many agripreneurs to its ranks. The hills of Kumaon and Garhwal would have been laden with stone fruits and off-season vegetables, and the fertile tracts along the Ganga would have made Bengal the global hub for flowers, fruits, and vegetables. In fact, if India aspires to play the lead role in global food security, it has to be driven by research, extension, and technology services – all of which require investments in human resources.
Public servants are an asset
Let us now take a look at the Union budget. In the budget of nearly Rs 40 lakh crore, some key heads of expenditure include Rs 2 lakh crore on food security, Rs 1 lakh on fertiliser subsidy, and another Rs 75,000 on MGNREGA. Therefore, assuming an average salary of Rs 50,000 for the 8.72 lakh new hires, the additional expenditure would be around Rs 52,000 crore. However, when public systems are strengthened, the positive gains have a multiplier effect. Imagine what an additional teacher in a primary school does for the empowerment of the child, or when an extension worker shares information about new seed varieties and market prices.
We must also address the issue of additional resources, especially for the state governments. What comes to mind immediately is a 2 per cent cess on the fee paid to coaching centres for entrance exams – from IIT to JEE to CLAT to the civil services – and on non-critical drugs and nutraceuticals to support the education and health sector. The agriculture extension workers should receive support from the APMCs and Mandi Parishads, which are sitting on a surplus of several hundred crores. State governments can also save precious resources by restricting the power subsidy only to those at the bottom of the pyramid. In any case, more important than finding financial resources is an understanding that public servants are an asset, not a liability. This becomes even more relevant as the UN will mark 23 June as the Public Services Day.
Sanjeev Chopra is a historian and Festival Director of Valley of Words. Till recently, he was the Director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration. He tweets @ChopraSanjeev. Views are personal.
This article is part of the ‘State of the State‘ series that analyses policy, civil services, and governance in India.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)