Indian external recruitment drive falters

By on 01/01/2019
India needs more technical specialists in fields such as disaster relief, helping the country to tackle challenges such as floods (Image courtesy: AFP Photo/Indian Army).

The Indian government’s plan to bring outside specialists into senior civil service jobs, undermining the Indian Administrative Service’s (IAS’s) long-standing monopoly on leadership roles, has hit a roadblock. Or two.

The proposed reforms are designed to plug skills gaps in specialist, technical fields such as global finance, disaster management and artificial intelligence, and represent “the first formal declaration of no confidence in the civil services as they are constituted,” according to Tuktuk Ghosh – a former senior civil servant who writes on the operation of Indian governance.

In the face of opposition from IAS cadres and opposition politicians – some of whom see the move as an attempt by the governing BJP to politicise leadership roles – the government began with a small-scale recruitment programme, aiming to fill ten posts at the level of deputy secretary and joint secretary in fields including agriculture, road transport, environment and civil aviation. Heavyweight ministries such as defence and foreign affairs were excluded from the first tranche of external recruitments, and those applying needed to show 15 years of specialist experience.

Resisting reform

However, reports suggest that the government has received only about 6000 applications – falling far short of their expectations of around 100,000. And India’s The Print has reported that the quality of applications has been disappointing, failing to produce the hoped-for “domain experts”.

The reform has also been met by a legal challenge, launched by retired IAS officer Dr Charandrapal – who alleged that it violates India’s constitution. IAS officers from Uttar Pradesh have complained that the Union Public Services Commission (UPSC) – the body mandated under the constitution to select IAS officers – was not involved. And the opposition Congress Party has both claimed that external recruitment represents an insidious attempt to bring in people sympathetic to the BJP, and argued that external recruitment infringes equalities laws – which require the civil service to hire a portion of new recruits from ‘Scheduled Castes’ and ‘Scheduled Tribes’.

Inadequate incentives?

However, A. Bharat Bhushan Babu, spokesperson for the Department of Personnel and Training – cadre-controlling authority of the IAS – told Global Government Forum that the UPSC has now been involved. “We were involved only in handling the applications that had come in, for which a new website has been created. But now the UPSC has taken over,” he said, adding that he was not qualified to comment on whether the applicants were of good quality.

The shortage of recruits may, in part, reflect the disparity between government salaries and the rewards available to senior technical specialists in the private sector. “The selected individuals will be given three-year contracts – extendable to five years based on performance – in key ministries and given the pay scale of a joint secretary which is from Rs 1.44 lakh to Rs 2.18 lakh per month [US$2050-3105], plus perks like government accommodation and vehicle,” the Economic Times reported. “Individuals working in private sector companies, consultancy firms and international or multinational organisations are eligible to apply.”

Dilip Cherian, who writes the column Babuwatcher for national daily The Asian Age, told Global Government Forum that the government does need more technical specialists. “It is a much more complex and connected world than ever. Super-specialists are needed to navigate it,” he said. But the “prestige” attached to a government role can’t compete with private sector salaries, he argued, noting that the fixed-term contracts attached to the new posts may provide another deterrent: it represents a significant risk for an individual with 15 years’ private sector experience to abandon their business career for a three-year civil service contract.

A gap to fill

As well as boosting the government’s ability to deploy technical and specialist skills, direct recruitment into senior roles could help India to address its shortage of senior leaders – which has been blamed for slow federal decision-making, and made Indian states reluctant to second IAS officials to central government.

Tuktuk Ghosh argued that the reform is “in no way a panacea for governance-deficit; nor is it as novel as is being made out to be.” Coming late in the BJP’s term – general elections are anticipated in the first half of 2019 – and weakened by what Ghosh called “wishy-washy contractual terms and conditions”, the external recruitment campaign has also been on “too micro- mini a scale to make any difference on implementation,” she said.

Yet with many other governments hiring technical specialists directly into the senior ranks of government, India’s hesitant moves to follow suit are only likely to grow in scale and impetus. “It’s important not to lose sight of its disruptive potential, going forward,” said Ghosh.

About Abhimanyu Kumar

Abhimanyu Kumar is a journalist based in New Delhi, India. He writes on issues related to politics and governance for Indian and foreign media. He was previously with The Hindu and The Sunday Guardian.

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