Government's lateral hiring a political move for 2019 elections, will do little to raise efficiency in bureaucracy

The government's announcement inviting private sector professionals to apply for 10 vacancies for joint secretaries in key ministries has been praised as massive, historic, path-breaking and similar such adjectives. In its notification on lateral hiring on Sunday, the Centre had invited "talented and motivated Indian nationals willing to contribute towards nation-building to join the government at the level of joint secretary", also specifying the expertise required and other criteria they need to meet.

 Governments lateral hiring a political move for 2019 elections, will do little to raise efficiency in bureaucracy

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reuters

Applicants above 40 years of age, with 15 years of work experience and expertise in the fields of revenue, financial services, economic affairs, agriculture, road transport, shipping, environment, new and renewable energy, civil aviation and commerce are eligible to apply till 30 July. The Department of Personnel and Training said in its notice that the candidates can be government officials at an equivalent level of any state or Union Territory as well as individuals at comparable levels at public sector banks, autonomous bodies, universities and research institutes.

Those from the public sector will be appointed on deputation, but candidates from the private sector will be hired on a contract basis. Selected candidates will be hired on three-year contracts and paid between Rs 1.44 lakh and Rs 2.18 lakh per month. Their contracts could also be extended based on their performance, and once hired as a joint secretary, they can enjoy perks such as government accommodation and vehicle.

The timing of the announcement indicates that the decision was made with the 2019 elections in mind. Administrative reforms should have begun in 2014, but no steps were taken beyond replacing the Planning Commission with NITI Aayog. In March 2017, Union minister Jitendra Singh had revealed that there was a shortage of more than 1,400 IAS officers — for 6,396 posts, only 4,926 were hired. An official notification released at the same time had also indicated that the government planned to hire only 980 officers, the lowest in the past five years.

Given the shortage of bureaucratic staff, the lateral recruitment of 10 joint secretaries is by no means a “massive” move as is being propagated. The process should have been extended across the board to fill the vacancies and bring in professionals from in all ministries.

Representative image. Reuters

Representative image. Reuters

The Opposition has criticised the government’s announcement on lateral hiring, alleging that it was aimed at filling bureaucratic posts with individuals who look at the government “favourably”, even though this is not the first instance of lateral recruitment. The government had opted for lateral hiring in the 1980s, albeit mostly in the IT sector. Later, there were lateral inductions at higher levels, as well. For example, Sam Pitroda was made the chairman of the National Knowledge Commission (2004-2009) — a high-level advisory body to the prime minister that had submitted some 300 recommendations on 27 focus areas. In 2010, Pitroda founded the National Innovation Council and also served as an advisor to the prime minister with the rank of a Cabinet minister on public information, infrastructure and innovation.

Another example of lateral hiring could be of Arun Singh, who was brought in as an advisor to former external affairs minister Jaswant Singh with the rank of a minister of state by the government of the earlier National Democratic Alliance. When former defence minister George Fernandes stepped down from the post after what is known as the 'Coffingate', Jaswant Singh took over the defence portfolio, too. Arun Singh was deeply involved in restructuring the defence establishment and strategising on key issues, but he quit eventually because of the Opposition's allegations that were suspected to be encouraged by bureaucrats in the defence ministry.

What is surprising is that the Narendra Modi government completely left out the defence ministry in lateral hiring announcement, even though it had vehemently denounced the United Progressive Alliance for the sector. Ironically, the current government has done little to reform the defence ministry, despite its bureaucrats stymieing Modi’s pet 'Make in India' initiative. Also, instead of going after the defence estates, which the Controller General of Defence Accounts had recommended disbanding in 2010 for rampant corruption, the Modi government has empowered it further.

File image of Amit Shah with Narendra Modi. Facebook/BJP

File image of Amit Shah with Narendra Modi. Facebook/BJP

The British, who never trusted Indians, called services headquarters 'attached offices' in the 'Rules of Business' of the government and made the defence secretary responsible for the country's defence, which has not changed since Independence. In 1947, the Imperial Civil Service (ICS) included 322 Indians and 688 Britons, most of whom returned to England. The ICS was divided between India and Pakistan, and what remained with India was renamed the Indian Administrative Service — with the same idea of keeping services at arm's length and divided. To their joy, Nehru deemed the military an anathema that he was willing to disband, even saying that our Chinese friends could guard the North East Frontier Alliance — now Arunachal Pradesh. The question of the minister of defence or defence secretary giving strategic advice did not arise as they lacked the basic understanding of military matters. When Nehru made the strategic blunder of stopping the Indian Army from pursuing fleeing Pakistanis in 1948 and went to the United Nations, giving Pakistan the border with China it never had, the IAS sat mute or maybe applauded. Sadly, even though several scholars have pushed to have the defence ministry restructured and replaced with the Department of Defence, the government has made no such move.

The inner circle of the Bharatiya Janata Party has assessed that bureaucrats who detest Modi’s CEO-type functioning and fear that he may go after them had engineered the current political scenario that is making the party edgy. This worsened after the defence ministry briefed Modi on the unaccountability of the bureaucrats in the ministry. The Modi government must take the blame for failing to undertake administrative reforms, but the IAS is a closed group and perhaps India’s most powerful union, which the government does not seem to want to annoy. This is why negligible action is taken against bureaucrats, beyond retiring a few.

The lateral hiring induction move will not upset the IAS as some of the 10 vacant posts will be filled by employees from state or Union Territory governments. Anyway, these joint secretaries will report to additional secretaries from the IAS, and bureaucrats will have a say in their selection. While the move is a good initiative — besides being good for publicity — it is a case of too little, too late.

The author is a veteran lieutenant general.

Updated Date: Jun 12, 2018 15:50:13 IST