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Devesh Kapur: The Indian state and India's future

The country urgently needs to address the shortage of talent in public sector institutions

Devesh Kapur 

Whatever the achievements of India’s private sector and robust civil society, there is absolutely no doubt that the country will not go far if the palpable weaknesses of the Indian state are not reversed. Much of the attention on the manifold shortcomings of the Indian state has focused on the growing levels of corruption and venality in public life in India. While this attention is undoubtedly necessary, an equally compelling limitation is the lack of competence of the Indian state, an issue that has received alarmingly little attention.

Since the onset of economic liberalisation, there has been a dramatic shift in the ability of the public sector to attract talent. This extends throughout the government supply chain, ranging from front-line functionaries of the Indian state to the increasingly complex environment that the state faces. While vacancies and absenteeism in the health and education sectors in India are well known, even in the supposedly sacrosanct security area, the Indian Army, the numbers are alarming. The Army faces a shortage of more than 12,000 officers in 2011 and recruited less than 1,500 in 2010. Despite internal security concerns in India, 9,443 posts are lying vacant in Intelligence Bureau. Despite repeated terrorist depredations, of the 732 posts in the Maharashtra State Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS), 447 are vacant. Though new regulatory institutions are being created with abandon, the personnel are often unavailable. About half the posts sanctioned for the Competition Commission of India are vacant. And if one adds the quality issue, the problem is much graver.

The reasons for personnel weaknesses plaguing public agencies are complex. They range from the failures manifest in the Indian education system at all levels to improve the quality of skills on a sufficiently large scale; to the vastly better opportunities for talent both within and outside the country; the declining respect for government service in society; weak systems of recruitment, training and motivation; and the inability to bring in expertise laterally or to sideline or remove incompetent personnel.

However, institutional factors are also important. The Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) has been one of India’s unheralded institutions whose constitutional status has afforded it autonomy. But the manner in which it functions appears to have declining relevance to contemporary challenges. Its recruitment procedure, based on exams, obviously depends on some understanding that the selection procedure does indeed select based on the characteristics germane to functional responsibilities. How does one know if a successful applicant to the Indian Forest Service is good at taking exams but has little love for nature and forests or empathy with those whose lives are intertwined with forests? Moreover, by allowing examinees to continue to take the exam multiple times, it has increased the risk that the recruits are much more geared towards those who spend multiple years preparing for the exam and are, therefore, even more likely to recoup the opportunity costs through extra-curricular income. Additionally, these are less likely to be the sort of creative personnel that the government desperately needs to attract. Addressing these questions would require careful analytical studies that can link the candidates’ performance in exams, their career performance and trajectories, and use the feedback to revise both the content and the procedures of these exams.

Sadly, few analytical studies have been undertaken on the issue by the government as well as academia. No subject elicits more boredom in high-powered academia than public administration. And no subject has received as little attention from successive governments as public administration (notwithstanding professed statements from the highest level of the government and the lacklustre report of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission). Indian intellectuals and activists have always pressed the state to do more, whether through legal or policy mandates. Few have, however, engaged with improving state capacity with the kind of detailed analysis and understanding that this complex subject requires.

If the UPSC’s performance has integrity but limited imagination, that of the State Public Service Commissions’ has been remarkably imaginative; sadly, this imagination has been employed to use power for rent-seeking. The consequences for public administration have been deeply pernicious; any recruit who has paid a considerable sum of money to secure a job is going to spend his career trying to reap that investment as rapidly as possible.

The Indian state has been particularly inadequate in attracting talent through lateral mechanisms. At a seminar to commemorate the 20th anniversary of reforms earlier this year, the most troubling aspect was that the panelists in 2011 could well have been the panelists in 1991. Even in the 1980s, India was able to attract talent to its crucial economic sector ministries in ways that have become virtually impossible even as the demand for domain expertise has rapidly expanded relative to its supply within the system. Most government committees in India appear to have a cut-off age. In any country looking to the future, that cut-off age would be a ceiling to ensure that fresh talent with new domain expertise is brought in. In India, it is the opposite. The age limit is not a ceiling but a floor where being a gerontocrat is not just desirable but mandatory. One could argue that since most committees are useless, the harm done is also modest. But when it comes to fundamental new challenges like cyber security, where cutting-edge talent is probably in its teens, the manner in which the Indian state is approaching is not just inadequate but also positively harmful.

More than a century ago, Max Weber had pointed out that building institutions is a long and arduous task akin to slow boring of hard boards. Rebuilding public institutions, particularly in a complex environment like India’s, is likely to be even harder. But India has no option if it is to have a viable future.

The author is Director of Centre for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania

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First Published: Mon, November 14 2011. 00:17 IST