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A K Bhattacharya: Reducing India's bureaucracy

Nobody should object to the corporatisation of the railways, on the lines of MTNL and BSNL

A K Bhattacharya  |  New Delhi 

Now that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is getting serious about reducing the number of central ministries, it is time to take a close look at what actually contributes to the huge size of the bureaucracy that very often incurs the wrath of experts and critics for being both inefficient and ineffective.

The total number of central government employees, according to the finance ministry’s estimate, was 3.32 million last March, a little more than 3.22 million a year ago. Next year, it is set to go up to 3.36 million. Mind you, this number does not include non-civilian employees under the ministry of defence or those directly employed in the three wings of the armed forces. What this shows is that the government’s headcount continues to grow, albeit at a slower pace — by about 100,000 in the last one year and by about 43,000 this year.

There is, however, another way of looking at the size of the central government’s workforce. Three major components of the government’s total staff strength account for as much as 81-84 per cent of the total number of employees. These components are the Department of Posts, Police and the Indian Railways.

The largest chunk comes from the Indian Railways, which has a total workforce of about 1.4 million. There is no sign of any reduction there. Then comes the Police, which had a workforce of about 800,000 last March (up by about 10,000 a year ago) and will go up to 839,000 by next March. You really cannot quarrel with the government’s desire to recruit more under this department given the current pathetic state of our internal security agencies and the need to make amends. The third component is the Department of Post, which had about 489,000 employees last March (5,000 less than a year ago) and its headcount is slated to go down further to 484,000 next March.

The point here, however, is not the size of these three departments but whether these should be part of the central government’s headcount. In all fairness, the Indian Railways should count itself as a commercial undertaking. Therefore, its 1.4 million employees should not be part of the central government’s workforce.

Till a few years ago, the department of telecommunications used to boast of a huge workforce. But that declined significantly when Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited were carved out of the department and set up as corporate entities. An alternative, therefore, would be to initiate the much-needed steps to corporatise the Indian Railways. Nobody should object to the creation of the Indian Railways as a state-owned corporate entity. The MTNL and BSNL models are available as precedents to appease the railway employees who might feel deprived of some post-retirement benefits. Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee has to be taken on board on this. That might be a difficult task. Once she is convinced, a major reform initiative would have been taken.

In the same way, there is no reason why the employees under the Department of Post and Police should come under the central government’s headcount. The postal employees can be made part of a state-owned unit to take care of the postal services and the government’s employee-count would be about half a million less. Similarly, the Police too should not come under the central government’s workforce. If the non-civilian employees of the defence ministry, working for the three wings of the armed forces, do not come under the government’s headcount, the government can apply the same logic to exclude the Police from calculating the number of employees with the Union government.

If Manmohan Singh can keep these three departments out, the central government’s total workforce will come down to around 600,000-640,000. After this, the department with the largest number of employees will be the Revenue Department with about 100,000 employees used for collecting taxes. With the use of technology and outsourcing of tax collection and information dissemination moving at a steady pace, there is no reason why the government cannot keep its staff strength under check.

There is a way out of the problem of an oversized bureaucracy. The Manmohan Singh government has to look for it and take the necessary steps.

First Published: Wed, August 12 2009. 00:58 IST