India's insuperable bureaucracy

After politicians if there is one class of public officials that looks after itself generously it is the bureaucracy. For years the country’s elite services of the IAS, IFS, and IPS complained that their salaries and perks were hardly commensurate with the levers of powers they controlled; and that in retirement they were relegated not only to lives of relative obscurity but also impecuniousness. It was one reason suggested for declining levels of probity and increase in influence-peddling and corruption among the “officer class”, including the defence services. Compared to their peers in the private sector or professional services like doctors, accountants, and engineers, they earned pitifully, never mind the passing glory of occupying bungalows in Lutyens’ Delhi or state capitals with all the panoply of official cars and subordinate flunkeys. 

Several memoirs of the period, for example, The Service of the State: The IAS Reconsidered (Penguin, 2011) by the upstanding civil servant Bhaskar Ghose, give an accurate portrayal of challenges faced in the districts and the Centre. He doesn’t much remember entertaining even a close group of friends simply because there wasn’t cash to spare on anything more than a few bottles of beer. Then came the 7th Pay Commission with a substantial jump in salaries and pensions — and you would think the carping might stop. But no. Although the Commission was wound up a couple of years ago, this week central government employees accused the Finance Minister of “cheating” them. Why wasn’t their minimum pay hiked beyond Rs 18,000 a day as promised?

Like Mrs Gummidge, the chronic complainer in David Copperfield, everything is much worse for this class of Indians than for any other. This week, too, one Col. Mukul Dev served a legal notice on the defence secretary for replacing free rations to officers in non-conflict areas with an allowance of Rs 96 a day. An army officer of my acquaintance wholeheartedly agrees. “Daily withdrawal of free rations could feed a family of two or three,” he rues. “But what will Rs 96 buy you these days?”

Cast a colder eye on what civil servants earn by way of enhanced pay scales and retirement benefits and the picture is actually quite rosy. At the top of the pecking order a secretary-level IAS officer (or an equivalent director-general of police) receives a salary of Rs 2.5 lakh a month; at the bottom of the step-ladder the starting pay is Rs 56,000. Pensions are half of the last-drawn salary so the hallowed brethren get about Rs 1 lakh a month after turning 60 plus full health cover at most hospitals. Some of my widowed aunts, wives of long-deceased soldiers and officials, are quietly smiling after years of scrimping and saving. 

Despite every government’s commitment to cost-cutting and reducing staff strength, the administrative machine’s expansionist notions greedily demand more. Jitendra Singh, current minister of personnel and pensions, stated in the Lok Sabha recently that in the last four years the annual intake of IAS officers has increased to 180, of IFS to 110 and IPS to 150. Yet he expressed “serious concern…[over] the persistent shortage” of authorised numbers in the three services — 1,400 in the IAS, 560 in the IFS, and 900 in the IPS (against their present strength of 4,926 IAS, 2,597 IFS, and 908 IPS serving officers).

Expectedly, the highest number of vacancies are in the Hindi heartland of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh where the race to join the powerful “afsar” class ensures lifetime security apart from vastly improved marriage prospects. Increased numbers of women in government employment have altered the matrimonial equation, however. There’s a higher “bride price” for such women looking for suitable boys. As one prospective father-of-the-bride said, “My daughter will bring “kiraya-maaf” (rent-free) accommodation for life.”

Heavily subsidied grace-and-favour housing is one of the biggest perks of sarkari life. In Delhi, with its hordes of central and state government officials, most neighbourhoods are mixed, punctuated with large swathes of dwellings to house the babudom’s innumerable layers. Many of these are now undergoing the most dramatic and visibly ostentatious makeover by the government’s richest redevelopment agency, National Buildings & Construction Corporation. Gigantic fluorescent screens are transforming huge government colonies such as Nauroji Nagar, Sarojini Nagar, and Netaji Nagar into lavish commercial high rises and new government housing. The NBCC, a listed company with revenues of Rs 600 crore, recently sold a 10-floor tower (the first of 12) in Nauroji Nagar for a record Rs 1,100 crore, higher than Connaught Place prices. Part of the proceeds, says the NBCC’s chairman, will double the existing government housing units from 12,970 to 25,667 at a cost of Rs 32,835 crore. Private real estate developers can only dream of such unattainable prices and locations. 

In his magisterial, as yet unmatched, history of the origins of India’s bureaucracy Philip Mason rightly called it the “heaven-born” service. In our time, its grasp and growth is yet more self-perpetuating, privileged, and insuperable.

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