1 Million In 18 Months: Reimagining State Capacity And Capability

Tushar Gupta

Jun 16, 2022, 04:06 PM | Updated Jul 11, 2022, 12:15 AM IST

Parliament (Swarajya Magazine)
Parliament (Swarajya Magazine)
  • For almost all ministries, with over 20 per cent of the posts lying vacant and a significant part of the workforce retiring in the next ten years, by 2032, the state capacity must prepare for a critical period with new challenges.
  • In 2011, the Indian state spent Rs 486 crore to pay 14,304 teachers employed in 4,435 government schools across the country. The only problem was that the total number of students in these schools was zero. Thus, the state was paying over 14,000 teachers and was maintaining infrastructure, even if not in the best manner, for over 4,440 schools, with zero students.

    Further, the state was spending an additional Rs 724 crore, paying 21,277 teachers across 8,675 schools. The total student enrollment in these schools was 15,333, less than two students per school on average.

    Given the delays in processes and the excessive paperwork, the state is imagined as the public enemy number one when it comes to the squandering of monetary resources.

    Yet, even with the surplus number of teachers in schools without students, the Ministry of Education puts the vacant posts for teachers at 1.035 million alone. This is against the general impression regarding state capacity and strength, assumed to be of surplus and not scarcity.

    The numbers, however, tell a different story, one of lack and want.

    The central government has more than 40 lakh sanctioned posts, of which around 8.72 lakh lie vacant, more than 20 per cent. Simply put, the centre is working minus one-fifth of its designated workforce. The numbers get more alarming if one digs into the specific ministries. Within the railways, 2.3 lakh posts are unfilled against a total strength of 15 lakh.

    In Defence (Civil), 2.5 lakh posts remain vacant against a sanctioned 6.33 lakh strength. Postal department, with 2.67 lakh sanctioned strength, 90,000, or more than one-third, posts remain unfilled. In Revenue, 74,000 posts lying vacant against a designated strength of 1.78 lakh. Lastly, within the Ministry of Home Affairs, against a sanctioned strength of 10.8 lakh posts, 1.3 lakh vacancies remain.

    An important question around state capacity and the expectations from it is warranted, especially after 2014 when the idea has been to maximise governance with minimum government.

    Thus, should the government cut down on expenditure on employment or move towards digitisation altogether or lease out more work to the private sector where its participation is either futile or inefficient or should the government allocate more resources to the welfare schemes, diverting funds away from the inefficient departments, an idea many socialists would romanticise?

    A case in point would be that of Direct Benefit Transfers, which has curbed the country’s middleman syndrome to a great extent. Deploying the trilogy of Jan Dhan accounts and mobile, linked to one’s Aadhar. Moving to the DBT mechanism to facilitate welfare schemes has saved the exchequer over Rs 1.75 lakh crore, but the bare minimum duties of the state do not stop there.

    There are revenues to be collected, tax base to be expanded, law and order to be maintained, policies at the local level to be implemented, and most importantly, ensure speedy justice.

    This is where the scarcity hurts the Indian state's capacity and capability. Take, for instance, the judiciary. In 2020, the vacancy of judges in the high courts stood at 38 per cent, and even though it came down from its 41 per cent peak in 2015, it had increased from 33 per cent in 2010. In the subordinate courts, the vacancy of judges stood at 20 per cent in 2020.

    In the high courts of Allahabad, Calcutta, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Patna, Punjab and Haryana, and Rajasthan, the vacancy of judges exceeded 40 per cent.

    In 1987, the Law Commission of India had recommended 50 judges for every 10 lakh people, and yet more than 33 years later, in 2020, the judge-to-population ratio stood at 21 for every 10 lakh people. This has a direct bearing on the number of cases pending. Over 47 million cases are pending today at several levels, up from 32 million in 2011, with major delays occurring in the subordinate courts.

    Within the high courts, close to six million cases have been pending. Who can forget the remarks of Justice VV Rao, who declared, back in 2010, that it would take 320 years to get done with the pending cases?

    The pandemic was a shocking reminder of the Indian state’s faltering human resources. Even after the two devastating years of Covid-19, the shortage of doctors and other medical staff burdens the government at several levels.

    For instance, in Punjab, where ventilators during the second coronavirus wave in 2021 were lying uninstalled, only 153 doctors are present against a sanctioned strength of 600 specialists across 150 rural health centres. For every thousand people, India has merely 1.7 nurses against the WHO standards of at least 4.

    Another study, released in 2017, highlighted the issue of bureaucratic overload at the local level, thus hindering policy implementation. Focusing on Block Development Officers, catering to, on average, around 150,000 citizens, the study stated that for every 100,000 citizens, BDOs had only 23 full-time employees, less than 21 contractual employees, less than one four-wheeler and not even six computers.

    The vacancies within the BDOs went as high as 68 per cent in some areas, reducing the leftover workforce to mere firefighters and generalists who were not focused on any specific policy intervention or goal.

    Within the ministries, there are other issues as well. Beyond the lack of personnel, there is the question of age and pending retirement. The Seventh Pay Commission report, released in November 2015, throws up some interesting and alarming trends.

    As of January 2014, the Ministry of Agriculture, with 20 per cent of posts vacant, had 43 per cent of its workforce aged above 50. For the Ministry of Ayush, with 40 per cent of posts vacant, the workforce aged 50 and above was a mammoth 51 per cent. Ministry of Coal, with 27 per cent of posts vacant, had 64 per cent of its workforce aged 50 and above.

    For the Ministry of Culture, back in 2014, 77 per cent of its workforce was above the age of 40, with almost one-third of posts lying vacant. Similar was the story of the Ministry of Defence, with one-third of posts lying vacant, and 65 per cent of the workforce above the age of 40.

    The story was similar for almost all ministries. With over 20 per cent of the posts lying vacant and a significant part of the workforce retiring in the next ten years, by 2032, the state capacity must prepare for a critical period with new challenges.

    Indian Parliament Building, Delhi, India (Shahnoor Habib Munmun/Wikimedia Commons)
    Indian Parliament Building, Delhi, India (Shahnoor Habib Munmun/Wikimedia Commons)

    To employ a million people in the next eighteen months across several ministries is the government’s opportunity to reimagine state capacity and capabilities at several levels. For starters, the objective should be to deploy the trilogy of young and driven personnel, reduced paperwork coupled with digitisation, and refined processes relevant to the regions to enhance the implementation of policies with quick resolutions, low latency, and zero corruption.

    Two, technologies like Blockchain and Big Data can be employed to track the efficiency of employees in the future and where the hangup in the processes is.

    Three, encourage innovation around the current systems, as was the case during the pandemic when the government went for an agile policymaking process rather than sticking to a helicopter money approach.

    Innovation in several ministries can help in increased formalisation of MSMEs, for instance, better revenue collections, speedy land acquisition for government infrastructure projects, expanding the purview of digital banking, improved healthcare at the rural levels, and so forth.

    The inefficiency of the Indian state, languishing due to the socialist mindset it inherited from the early years after independence, has left many baffled in the past and plagued development at every level, from villages without healthcare and schools to key investments that found more acceptance in China and other Southeast Asian countries.

    China, in 2015, for instance, had 57 public employees for every thousand people compared to 16 in India. For the US, the number was 77.

    At the end of the day, the government’s job is to enable an atmosphere that can result in the creation of jobs and not directly be involved in ushering them, which is why farm, labour, and land reforms are important, to name a few policies.

    However, a great deal of ensuring this atmosphere comes from the state capacity operating at its maximum potential, which makes this recruitment drive important in all aspects. It's not only about who pays the Rs 486 crore or to whom it is paid, but if it is paid for the right work, at the right time, in the right place, to the right person.

    A million employed in eighteen months is a meagre step in addressing the aspirations of India’s ever-expanding labour force, but more than that, it is about reimagining the capability of the state through expanding its capacity.

    Do not miss the forest for the trees!

    Also Read: Why The Critics Of The Military's Agnipath Recruitment Scheme Are Wrong

    Tushar is a senior-sub-editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @Tushar15_

    Get Swarajya in your inbox.