Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Bumpy Road Ahead For The Pay Commission

Updated: July 4, 2015 9:30 am

The decadal exercise of the Pay Commission does lead to a revision of pays and allowances for the five   million odd people who work for the Union government : but more than that, this is an occasion to engage in a polemic on governance, and reflect on the aspirations and expectations of different—at times contesting- stakeholders. Thus newspaper columns are agog with ideas—from lateral entry, to shifting the onus of reform from the Cabinet Secretary to the PMO and linking pay and promotions with performance to outsourcing the non-core functions (transport, logistics, and data entry et al). The issue also comes for discussion in many forums, and the bureaucracy, especially the lead service, the IAS, to which this columnist belongs, is berated for everything wrong in the country. As with most contentious issues, much can be said on both sides, but often it is said without a clear understanding of what each assignment entails.

Take lateral entry or empanelment   at the level of Joint Secretary   as an example. While it is good to have expertise to get a better idea of the sector, let us understand what the Joint Secretary Does .S/he normally heads a division, and is responsible for the implementation of the legal instruments (Acts, Regulations, and International obligations), preparation of budget and Ministerial briefings to the Parliament. Whether we like it or not, these functions too require a special kind of ‘expertise’: an ability to transact with different levels and branches of government. They also bring to the fore a nuanced perspective   on whether the proposed course of action has any semblance to the ground reality in the districts where the programme has to be rolled out, besides of course the likely response of the state governments.

04-07-2015

A domain expert, on the other hand, brings in very valuable experience and information, often on global best practices. Rather than place them (domain experts, viz a viz bureaucrats) in an either/or scenario, it would be best to have the ‘domain experts’ in the NITI Ayog and the Lok Sabha/Rajya Secretariat   : let them   build the different scenarios for the law makers in smaller groups where discussions can be held in a non adversarial mode. This is particularly important because most of the time in the highest policy forums in the country is spent on ‘constituency related questions’. Almost every MP wants to know the status of everything—from playgrounds in schools to accreditation of nurseries and the establishment of warehousing infrastructure—but little time is spent on   a National Sports Policy, or a discussion on   why the Warehouse Receipts have failed to catch the fancy of the farmers or why hydroponics is a possible solution to providing fresh vegetables to large cities. Domain experts are certainly required to explain to our legislators the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ of different options , and this will help bring greater depth and purpose to the policy debates. We do need Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi to contribute to the public health policy issues, especially with regard to tobacco use, and the Skills Ministry will certainly benefit from Manish Sabharwal’s discourses and practical suggestions on our labour policy: however to put them in the standard slot of a joint secretary or secretary, is doing justice neither to these distinguished individuals, nor to bureaucrats. Domain experts should be called Advisors, and inducted in the NITI Ayog, and if required select ministries to contribute to better policy—but please leave the implementation to the joint secretaries who have honed considerable experience based on their assignments in the district and state governments. A good example exists in Krishi Bhawan—where the Horticulture Commissioner and Agriculture commissioner are distinguished scientists who advise the concerned officials on technical matters, but leave the programme aspects to trained administrators. Another noteworthy example is the National Centre for Cold Cain Development which has also been established within the Department of Agriculture and Co-operation to advise the Ministry in all aspects of post harvest management, with special focus on cold chain infrastructure and logistics. The CEO of NCCD has helped in rationalizing subsidy, besides shifting the focus from the very expensive Controlled Atmosphere stores to basic pack houses at the farmers field and refrigerated transport—for what is required is not ‘static holdings’, but the ‘flow’ of perishable commodities. Could this columnist have seen through the subsidy guzzling ‘industry driven agenda’ of pushing very high cost interventions? Probably not. But can NCCD build the consensus on rationalizing subsidy with state governments? Decidedly not. Therefore, both have to work in partnership and positive collaboration with each other. Moreover, one should mention here that while there will be a lot of takers for the ‘glam’ positions in government, a majority of the joint secretaries work quietly, trying to bring about changes in sectors which do not make headline news unless something goes terribly wrong . Rotting potatoes make news, but when facilities to establish world class potato flakes are established in remote districts, it is sometimes covered in the ‘agriculture/farm’ section. So while there will be a beeline to join Economic Affairs and Commerce—how about the department of land resources, dairy development, social justice, minority affairs and the North East? It is interesting to note that many officers opt to serve in Krishi Bhawan by choice because   this is where better policy and implementation will have a more meaningful impact!

One would also like to comment on the debate on whether governance reform should be anchored in the PMO or the Cabinet Secretariat. Let me play the devil’s advocate and say—neither. Unless the department concerned is convinced that there is a need to change the way things are currently being done, no diktat from any higher authority will get them to change. Governance Reform essentially implies listening to the stakeholder, and understanding what s/he needs, and making the programme/intervention   as simple, (and if one could use the term ‘foolproof’ ) as possible. This is perhaps the most difficult part of the exercise—but only those with an ear to the ground can give the best possible alternatives. Governance reform is the ability to ‘listen’ and respond, and therefore the exercise has to involve those who are at the cutting edge of delivery system.

On this count, the Pay Commission deserves full compliments for reaching out to all government employees and seeking their views and suggestions. It’s obvious that all service associations will put forward arguments to support their claims of superiority/ parity/indispensability/discrimination and their commitment to serve the nation. They have a tough time ahead—for whatever they recommend will leave some group more dissatisfied than the others—and everyone feels they deserved even better, and one can expect another series of articles when the recommendations are sent out later this year!

(An IAS Officer, the author is Joint Secretary & Mission Director, National Horticulture Mission, Government of India. The views expressed are personal.)

By Sanjeev Chopra

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