January 31, 2022The Intersectiongovernancepublic policy

State administrative services are crucial to federalism

More than transfers of elite civil servants, it the systemic inability of India’s states to recruit adequate numbers of public officials that is the bigger scandal

Mint This is from The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.

Concerns over the Union government’s recent move to gain the upper hand in the allocation of elite civil servants are serious, genuine and largely miss the point. New Delhi has a case in trying to address a shortfall in its human resources that has persisted for over two decades. The states are right to resist a unilateral attempt to alter a functioning balance. And there are constitutional, administrative and political implications of the Union government’s decision to wrest its share of Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers from the states and assert its influence over the entire civil service. Clearly, the matter is serious and genuine. But why is it beside the point?

The big, old, open and ugly secret is that the states have generally botched their public services: almost without exception, states have failed to recruit adequate numbers of civil servants, train them properly, raise their standards and prospects, manage them fairly and demand performance from them. Given that most of the public services that a citizen expects and encounters on a day-to-day basis are delivered by state governments, the sheer fact that the state administrative machinery is broken and dysfunctional is so shocking that we have learnt to ignore it.

In the unfortunate event your home or workplace catches fire, you’d be lucky to avoid serious damage: Manpower shortages in fire departments across the country are 90% of the sanctioned strength. Note that quite often, the sanctioned strength itself falls below international norms. If those injured are taken to a government hospital, you’d be lucky to get timely treatment: For there is a shortage of nurses and doctors. Over 20 states have doctor-to-population ratios below the World Health Organization norm of 1:1,000. But in the government system in India, the ratio is a miserable 0.08:1,000. Further, if you happen to suspect foul play behind the accident, you’d be lucky if the culprits are caught: On an average, state police forces are 24% under their sanctioned strength, which of course, is below the required level. If your case goes to court, there is a shortage of prosecutors and judges. Lower courts have around 23% of their positions vacant, and many states have been able to fill only 50% of vacancies over the past 10 years.

I could go on about teachers, tehsildars, engineers and so on. The shortage is nearly universal. We are talking about tens of thousands of vacancies that have remained unfilled for years together in almost every Indian state. These officials are responsible for everything from ensuring that garbage is picked up to putting criminals in jail. Yet, no one cares that these posts are unfilled. That is why, if we are really concerned about public services, the controversy over the postings of few dozen IAS officers is beside the point.

So why can’t states hire enough people? Karnataka is among the better governed states in the country. Yet, the Karnataka Public Service Commission (KPSC) has conducted only three rounds of recruitment into the Karnataka Administrative Service (KAS) over the decade. One round was stayed by the high court due to alleged irregularities. In another, exams were notified in 2015, conducted in 2017, but recruitment remained incomplete even in 2019. One person told me—without a hint of irony—that the delays are due to the KPSC being understaffed.

The deeper reason for the states’ failure to nurture a competent and professional civil services is the political economy.

Government jobs have become the spoils of power, to be distributed along the caste and regional lines that help politicians win elections. When this political reality’ meets government recruitment rules, things first get stuck and then come undone. This is India’s Great Crisis of Selection. Its solution is political. But state leaders do not want to expend their political capital on it. Instead, they depend on the few hundred All-India Service officers assigned to their states.

It’s not that there are no solutions. It’s that there is no public demand for finding them. One way out, for example, would be for states to accept United Public Service Commission (UPSC) examination ranks for recruitment into state services as the basic criterion, with state-specific tests and conditions as add-ons. If nationwide medical college admissions can be done on the basis of a single entrance test, why not state-level civil services? In fact, adopting the same examination for Union and state public services will not only raise the standards of the latter, but also reduce the status disparities between the two. Why shouldn’t a sub-inspector aspire to rise to be the director-general of police of her state? Why shouldn’t a KAS officer become the chief secretary of Karnataka, or indeed, the cabinet secretary to the Government of India?

There are many more The Intersection columns hereState administrative services are crucial to federalism

Of course, the Union’s unilateral actions over the sharing of All-India Service officers shake the federal balance. Yet, more serious damage to federalism has been occurring because states, municipalities and panchayats across the country have been failing our citizens in part due to administrative incapacity. It is entirely within the states’ powers, interests and resources to get their act together. If they do, they would not have to be overly concerned over how many IAS officers the Union government wants to take from their lot.

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