If you decide to quit a promising job at Areva T&D to join a government department where chances of rising to the top are remote - and that after taking a 50 per cent salary cut - you are more than likely to invite ridicule. It might appear even more incredulous if you are an engineering graduate from a top college.
In May 2011, Himanshu Gupta did just that. He joined the Planning Commission as a consultant. He is among a host of young professionals opting to work with the government under a contract, either as a consultant or an intern.
The financial services department in the finance ministry recently recruited seven interns from top educational institutes in Delhi, Bangalore and Pune. Now, the revenue department is going to do something along the same lines. Its two wings - the Central Board of Excise and Customs and the Central Board of Direct Taxes - had begun the recruitment process, Revenue Secretary Sumit Bose told Business Standard.
The Indian government has started this programme only recently, with the Planning Commission and the finance ministry leading the way. But some countries like the US and Canada, and multilateral agencies like the World Bank, have been running such schemes for a longer time. Whereas Bose says the government is still evolving these programmes, Chief Economic Advisor Raghuram Rajan sounds more impressed. He says these programmes are "no more an experiment" but "an integral part" of the system. "There is nothing to pre-suppose that the US or Canada systems are more established than our own," he says.
These programmes help fresh pass-outs, as well as those like Gupta who have worked in the private sector, understand the government's functioning better. Some of these professionals even choose to join government services later. But, such decisions are governed more by structuring of these programmes than salary.
Remuneration can differ on the basis of the recruitment programme. For consultants, the pay could be as high as Rs 50,000 a month, or more. In other contracts, it might be lower. During internship at the financial services department, for example, one could get a salary of only about Rs 5,000 a month, with a stricture that the immediate supervisor ensures interns do not have access to "confidential" information. These, however, do not seem to dissuade youngsters.
For Gupta, an electrical engineer from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, the opportunities he got at the Planning Commission were unparalleled. His first assignment was to conduct an investment due diligence for a nuclear fuel-processing facility at Kota, Rajasthan. "The compensation is not that lucrative but the type of exposure you get more than compensates. I took a hit of more than 50 per cent in my salary when I joined the Planning Commission. But, I would have even paid them to allow me to work here with this kind of exposure," he says.
At 24, Gupta has worked on preparing a chapter in the 12th Five-Year Plan, organised a ministerial summit of the level of G-20 for the Government of India, and is part of the renewable energy division of the plan panel. These assignments, which normally come after 15-20 years of experience, are surely a confidence-booster.
Lowering the age bar through parallel recruitment seems to be a new trend at the Planning Commission and the Department of Economic Affairs. At the Planning Commission alone, there are 59 such young professionals. At these analytical and policy advisory units, contribution of new ideas could at times prove very valuable. "Our work is driven by knowledge and analytics; it's not process-bound. The internship programme is designed to tap new ideas and give the interns hands-on knowledge to help them expand their frontiers," says Rajan. Even the departments of disinvestment and expenditure, according to Bose, have found hiring young lawyers useful.
For the government, on the other hand, the gains might not be significant in terms of papers produced by these young professionals, or the eventual jobs they get. For it, the interplay of ideas is more important. Rajan says, the programme should be seen as a symbiotic activity, with direct gains to the organisation but greater knowledge spill-overs to society.
But, does that threaten old hands? Rajan, an IITian and a management graduate who had no prior experience of working in the government until he joined the finance ministry, does not think so.
"The interns are chosen by some of the advisors (economic) to work with them." He sees these initiatives as part of the guru-shishya parampara - strongly ingrained in the Indian, as well as Western, academic traditions. "There is nothing that pleases a disseminator of knowledge more than seeing a young person gain knowledge and deploy it effectively," says Rajan, also a professor at the University of Chicago.
For the interns and consultants, the government experience could open newer opportunities. In the past, some of the consultants with the Planning Commission have been able to leverage their experience there to land positions at multilateral agencies like the International Finance Corporation and the Clinton Foundation. Some have even made it to top policy schools like Harvard Kennedy and Princeton.
Among key skills learned by those like Gupta during their internship at government offices is consensus-building. "For any scheme or project, there are various stakeholders - from state governments to companies, non-governmental organisations and, sometimes, even foreign governments. The consultative process followed for implementing such schemes is a major learning. In the corporate sector, consensus-building is limited to just your manager or the board of directors," he says.
Clearly, taking part in government bureaucracy is no longer a dirty word for the young brigade.