Travails of policy rollout

Impact of Agnipath scheme on operational capacity of armed forces needs to be assessed and communicated properly before rolling it out in phased manner

The Agnipath scheme recruiting agniveers for the armed forces has been a hot topic of discussion over the past fortnight, and has even led to violent protests and demonstrations in various parts of the country. There is a legitimate room for dissent and debate in a democracy but violence and damage to public property cannot be condoned in any manner. However, the intensity of the adverse reaction from the youth does point towards certain genuine concerns which need to be addressed and, in fact, should have been anticipated by the policymakers. Public policy is a complex issue because it deals with human beings who are prone to rational as well as emotional responses. It is for this reason that the formulation and rollout of any public policy needs to be done with a lot of care and has to involve all the possible stakeholders. We find that as soon as negative responses started coming in after the declaration of the policy, the government started announcing various other measures like 10 per cent reservation for agniveers in Central police forces or non-combatant wings of the armed forces. Some state governments have also assured of giving preference to agniveers in state government jobs. These announcements have helped in reducing the tensions but are somehow appearing to be an afterthought and a case of too little and too late.

Public policy always has some objectives in mind but, inevitably, there are unintended consequences to any policy, and it is the job of the policy framers to anticipate them and provide solutions in the policy document. The civil servants and the defense bureaucracy should have been aware of the likely reactions, and after deliberating on those, they should have been able to address them in the policy. The political executive normally has a much better understanding of the pulse of the people, and they should easily have been able to sense the likely reactions and prepare accordingly. I was surprised to read in one of the newspapers the statement of a senior officer of the government who said that they did not expect this kind of intense reaction. It points towards inadequate attention paid to the process of policymaking. Policies are not to be framed in isolation but have to be in close touch with the ground realities.

The government has outlined various merits of the scheme. The first is putting a check on the huge cascading liability of pension payments for better utilisation of defense outlay. In the budget for 2022-23, the defense ministry has been allocated Rs 5,25,166 crore — of which 54 per cent i.e., Rs 2,83,130 crore has been provided for pensions and salaries. Thus, pensions and salaries take away a large portion of the defense budget, leaving less to be spent on modernisation of equipment which is a necessity in modern day warfare. Only 27 per cent of the overall defense budget is for capital expenditure. It has been pointed out by some experts that ideally the ratio of revenue to capital outlay in the defense budget should be 60:40 whereas for India this ratio is 80:20. Indeed, this is a genuine cause for taking remedial action. Further, the government has also said that they will absorb 25 per cent of the agniveers in the armed forces and, eventually, by 2030, reach a state where agniveers and regular recruits would be in the proportion of 50 per cent each. This would reduce the average age profile of the armed forces, which today stands at 32 years. India needs a much younger profile for its soldiers. Unfortunately, the scheme has not been communicated properly and it has got positioned as a pension reform scheme whereas any reform relating to the armed forces has to focus on the objective of improving national security and operational capability. People would have accepted the scheme better if it could have been explained to them that this scheme would make the nation more secure, and by spending more on modern equipment, the defense forces would become far better equipped to handle any threat to the nation.

The adverse reaction is coming because 75 per cent of the agniveers are getting a job only for four years, after which they are not entitled to any pension or medical facilities, and left on their own to seek further avenues of employment. The government has come out with the promise of reservation in certain jobs for agniveers but there are reasonable doubts in the minds of the youth about the level of implementation, as even today the ex-servicemen quota in most employment remains unfulfilled. The private sector may be making pious statements about how agniveers would be a useful and disciplined resource for them but considering that they would only have a class-12 level education, one wonders to what extent the private sector would be able to employ them and in which capacity. The issue of unemployment is a genuine one confronting the youth today and this is why they are reacting in such a negative manner to the proposed scheme. It is interesting to note that most of these protests are happening in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. This is because these states have the maximum population of young people looking for jobs. Further, in both these states, the level of industrialisation is low and there are few job opportunities outside the government sector. In UP, I am personally aware of the thousands who apply for a grade-D level post in the government and many of them hold post graduate degrees and some of them are even PhD-holders. We can look around and see that in states like Maharashtra, Gujarat or Tamil Nadu, there is hardly any protest. Looking at the problem of unemployment, even the honorable Prime Minister has recently declared that one million vacancies in government should be filled up within 18 months.

In public policy, the issue of timing of a reform is also of crucial importance. Regular recruitment to the armed forces has not taken place for four years because of Covid, and many young aspirants have cleared various stages of the selection process. All of a sudden, they are informed that all these selections in process are cancelled and Agnipath scheme is to be implemented. Naturally, a negative reaction is bound to unfold due to a sense of desperation among the youth. The ideal thing would have been to complete all the selections which were in process and introduce the agniveer scheme along with regular recruitment in a phased manner. This would have given the opportunity of evaluating the scheme and, if found beneficial, rolling it out fully within four to five years. Some government spokesman has made the astonishing statement that this is a pilot scheme. A pilot scheme is one which is introduced on a small scale and, if it gives good results, it is scaled up. Evidently, there is apparent confusion in the government on how to make the scheme palatable to the people.

The Agnipath scheme has to be evaluated on its impact on the operational capacity of the armed forces and should be rolled out in a phased manner, depending on the results of a concurrent evaluation. Major policy reforms need far greater thought and involvement of all concerned.

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Continuous Evaluation

While one exam may be the threshold to qualify as civil servant, the officer’s promotion is based on annual performance along with seniority which ensures objectivity

Just passing one exam assures you a promotion to the top in your career and also provides a lifetime job security is the refrain I have been witnessing in various WhatsApp groups and in a spate of articles in the print media ever since the civil service exam result was announced a week ago. Many are surprised at the media space being made available to those candidates who have succeeded in the civil services exam, and in particular have qualified for the IAS. I read some opinion pieces which express surprise at this, and compare it to other countries where possibly this would not be newsworthy at all. They tend to equate this with a colonial hangover or the excessive importance to government in our society. It is not true that only candidates clearing the civil services exam get so much publicity as I have read similar stories about those who clear the JEE exam for IIT or get 100 percentiles in the CAT exam for admission into the Indian Institutes of Management and others. However, there is no denying the fact that there is no comparison to the attention being given to candidates who secure top ranks in the civil service exam. All of us are aware of the names of the girl candidates who secured the first three ranks in the exam. This is no doubt an indicator of the fact that the civil services exam is an extremely tough one where barely about 800 candidates qualify out of 8 to 10 lakhs applying and around 5.5 lakh students actually writing the exam — which means about 0.15 per cent candidates succeeding. There cannot be a more difficult competitive exam on which the aspiration of not only the candidate but the entire family is focused. Success in the exam leads to immediate recognition for the candidate and her family, and the status in society goes up exponentially.

The biggest credit must go to the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) which conducts this exam in a completely fair and impartial manner and it is perceived as such by all. Such a large exam being conducted with total honesty and integrity is a great achievement, especially when we find that much smaller exams relating to selection for government posts at lower levels become subjects of allegations of nepotism and cheating. The total integrity of the civil service exam gives it a halo of merit, and even the most powerful politicians or officers cannot interfere with it. The best is selected and this ensures that the civil servants are capable and intelligent people. I recall when I qualified for the IAS and looked around my batch, I found each one of them having exceptional qualities and knowledge. In fact, when in college, we could predict which student will make it to the civil services and more often than not the prediction came true. However, commentators, while agreeing with the fact that the exam selects the best on merit, criticize that just passing one exam provides a career of more than 30 years where promotions are based on seniority and almost everybody reaches the top. They argue for a system in which the merit is assessed at different points of time in career and the wheat is separated from the chaff and only those who continue to learn and grow reach the higher levels. The argument has force in it but I must point out that things have changed and now a candidate qualifying for the IAS does not automatically become Secretary to the Government of India, or even Joint Secretary or Additional Secretary. A 360-degree evaluation system has been introduced and now for promotions to the top the government does not only rely on annual performance reports but on feedback about competence and integrity from various stakeholders. The result has been that not more than 30 per cent of a batch is getting promoted to the top. Of course, questions are being raised about the efficacy of this 360-degree system which is opaque and often arbitrary. Still, it does ensure that not everybody reaches the top. In the system before this, the assessment was done on the basis of annual performance reports which generally tended to rate an officer as good or very good. I feel that there is a need for designing an objective and transparent evaluation system but there are issues related to this which must be kept in mind.

An IAS or IPS officer, amongst all the civil servants, works directly under the supervision and control of the elected political executive who is the final decision maker. Many decisions are taken for political reasons for which it would be difficult to hold the officer responsible. If seniority as a criterion for promotion is done away with and replaced with merit it could lead to complications as the merit would be assessed by the political masters. I have seen this in Uttar Pradesh, and it is true for many other states also that officers get aligned on political grounds with one ruling party or the other by design or by default. Some officers themselves are responsible for this as they fall to the lure of good postings under a particular dispensation. However, there are a large number who get identified for no fault of theirs, simply due to the fact that in a particular government they hold important posts and are perceived as being close to the party in power or belonging to a particular caste or community. Merit then gets subsumed under the weight of political influence. Promotions, if based on merit determined in such a manner, would lead to officers close to political party in power reaching the top. As part of police reforms, it is now mandated that top three names on the basis of seniority are sent by the UPSC to state governments for appointing one of them as Director General of Police. This has been a welcome move, considering that before this it was open to the party in power to appoint an officer who is close to them as Director General.

Even in this system, the political executive finds a way out by branding a selected officer as incompetent and removing him before the completion of his tenure. The point I want to make is that both the IAS and IPS work under political masters and it is thus very difficult to have an objective system of performance appraisal. It is for this reason that seniority is worth continuing with as a criterion for promotion. It is also not true that there is no effort to upgrade the skill-set of an officer after the initial one exam. There are now at least five phases of training for the IAS at different levels of seniority, equipping them with the knowledge required for jobs that they will hold at that level. It is also not true that all officers get important postings. Each officer acquires a reputation during his career which does determine his career path. The one exam is important as it selects the cream but it is also true that an objective system of performance evaluation free from political bias and based on attainment of results and outcomes is very much required for the bureaucracy to deliver in this age of disruption.

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