Over the past few decades, the public discourse regarding the role of the Indian State in the economy and society has become deeply flawed
The disillusionment with the Nehruvian dirigiste State and samajwadi (socialist) policies has generated a backlash against the government and especially government employees. Since the 1990s, the chorus of reducing the size of the government has reached a crescendo with government jobs as favourite target of the chatterati. The perception is that the government is oversized, and we must “reform” the government by reducing the number of officials and employees across government departments and public sector.
But the reality is that India has among the lowest public sector employment ratios in the world. According to the Seventh Pay Commission, there were only 139 government employees for every 100,000 people, excluding railways and postal departments. In contrast, the United States (US), with its ”minimum government”, has 668 government employees per 100,000 residents. Most of the government employees in India work in the railways, postal department, home ministry, and in defence while areas such as health and urban development have only a skeleton of the government staffing.
There were 750,000 vacancies at the level of central government alone in 2014. Around 38% posts of judges in high courts are lying vacant. In the states, the bureaucracy has been slowly diminishing due to the absence of recruitment at mid-level positions for years.
Instead of cutting down the supposedly bloated government sector, what India needs is augmentation of State capacity by hiring more people. Reforming the public sector is not synonymous with cutting down the number of employees. What India needs is restructuring by redeploying its public sector workforce towards delivery of public services.
There are massive vacancies in schools, totalling around one million across states. There are around 30% vacancies in the rural and agricultural ministries, which have the task of implementing ambitious governmental schemes affecting a majority of citizens. Even central universities and colleges have been reduced to a pitiable state, with more than 50% vacancies in some cases. And the less we talk about state universities, the better, for the recruitment process can be stuck endlessly.
The Indian State is being reduced to a ghost State with successive governments beholden to the humbug of finance and its inexplicable opposition to public spending. It is alleged that paying salaries to government employees is wasteful expenditure and a drag on economic growth. This shallow reasoning fails to take in account the positive impact of a well-staffed and functioning State on economic growth. More judges will ensure speedy justice in the hopelessly overburdened judicial system; more policemen will mean better law and order; and more doctors mean better health care. Only in an alternative world can they be a burden on the economic growth.
Government employment has also been a major source of demand due to job stability and better pay in an economy with a low per-capita income, evident in this pandemic. The inability or unwillingness to impose proper performance criteria does not mean that government should stop hiring people altogether. And the problem has never been the numbers of government employees, which was always abysmal. It is about the excessive and arbitrary powers in the hands of the bureaucracy leading to rent-seeking and ability to obstruct lives of the private citizens. We have seen this bureaucratic raj during the pandemic when 4,000 rules were issued in four months creating chaos. The solution, thus, lies in reforming the public services and not disbanding them.
The rhetoric of free-market or less government fails to realise that India has historically not had a large, effective State over centuries. People lived without the protection of the State, be it under the military occupation of the Sultanate period or the extractive Mughal State. In fact, the ideal of “Apne Raja Ram” (our king is Ram) spread from village to village as people avoided interacting with the State for settling disputes and societal affairs. Despite creating the foundations of a modern bureaucracy, even colonial rule was a distant, minimalist and non-interventionist State.
And the Republic of India too failed to build a strong State with an effective presence at the grassroots, and instead, exercised coercive power via police and district magistrates. Over the last few decades, even the limited gains made in augmenting State capacity are withering away. But the core point is that citizens do not desire the retreat of the State. Instead, they desire more State presence.
The entire movement of the Dalits and other subaltern castes is aimed at becoming “visible to the State”, and invoke its protection against the harsh socio-economic realities of their existence. We must start appreciating the fact that after centuries we have a State. And we must learn to own it and build it.
Abhinav Prakash Singh is an assistant professor, economics, Sri Ram College of Commerce
The views expressed are personal