A picture is worth a thousand words. Even the Oxford dictionary has conceded as much by admitting the emoji “tears of joy” as the first ever “pic-ord” which sums up the prevailing worldwide emotion of relief at even small mercies.
This emoji must have resonated with the 10 million employees and pensioners of the Union government as they read the generally beneficent recommendations of the Seventh Pay Commission presented to Union finance minister Arun Jaitley this week.
Coming as it does against the disturbing backdrop of faujis (Army veterans) having to resort to public agitations to get their due, the commission’s key objective seems to have been to soothe jangled sarkari nerves by adopting equity as the leitmotif of its recommendations.
Even recommending erosion of the pay “edge” enjoyed by the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) by making it available to all other Group A services, fits in well with this axiom. It mollifies the other cadres whilst giving ample opportunity to the IAS to retain its predominance by other means. After all they are the ones who write the rules today.
Equity – yes! but for whom?
But equity is an expansive concept spanning generations. How equitable, for example, are the recommendations versus citizens? Citizens have never been considered “stakeholders” by any of the commissions till now.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, however, has different ideas. He wants IAS officers to go beyond the files and the political intermediaries who crowd around key government employees and to consult directly with people to know the truth. Incidentally, this was why district collectors in earlier times went on extensive tours and camped in villages. One wishes that the Commission had also followed this practice of consulting the intended beneficiaries of public services, instead of limiting consultations to only government employees.
Fiscal impact to crowd out public investment, as usual
The Commission assesses the direct fiscal impact of its recommendations at `1 lakh crore ($15.5 billion) per year on pay, allowances and pension for 10 million employees and pensioners. The unassessed indirect impact will be at least thrice this amount, since the ripple effect raises all public sector employees’ wages in state and local governments and those in the state-owned enterprises who number 12 million, excluding pensioners.
The question that 220 million households — comprising the rest of India who do not partake of this public bounty — are likely to ask is why should each of them pay an additional `4,500 every year to finance this splurge?
Government pay is already indexed 100 per cent to inflation and pension is similarly indexed substantially. Any increase in the “real” pay — after accounting for inflation — needs to be justified against additional or better work performed. There is no evidence of any such link compelling the proposed enhancements.
Most importantly, the additional burden is ill-timed. It is mere statistical jugglery to justify the fiscal burden (0.65 per cent of GDP) by pleading that it is less than the burden (0.77 per cent of GDP) imposed by the preceding Sixth Pay Commission a decade ago. Another argument is that the prospects for economic growth are bright, making the additional burden manageable. This is iffy reasoning.
The fiscal challenges faced by the government today are far more daunting than in 2009, when there were expectations of a quick rebound in world economic growth. Consider that the aggregate, cumulative loss of state electricity boards alone is around `3 lakh crores ($45.5 billion) which needs to be dealt with to improve electricity supply. Union minister of state for power, coal, new and renewable energy Piyush Goyal has taken a hard stand against the Union government bearing the burden without basic reform within these entities. This is the right way to go. If subsidies for the poor need to be narrowly targeted, so must “real” public sector salary enhancements, and that too only to reward the few performers in the vast government machinery and not spread equitably like largesse to all.
Link public pay enhancement to higher than targeted GDP growth
Given this background prudence dictates that even if the recommendations are accepted in-principle, actual accrual and pay out of these amounts should be graduated. An option to link pay enhancements with performance is to link their payout to GDP growth which is a specific, measurable, assignable, realistic, time-related specific, measurable, assignable, realistic, time-related (SMART) metric for aggregate government performance.
One obvious option is to use the existing proportion of emoluments to GDP of 2.77 per cent. This can be thought of as the “share” of Union government employees in GDP. A similar share can be justified for distribution of the recommended pay enhancements out of the actual additional value created above the GDP growth target.
Using this principle, for every 0.5 per cent of growth above the target (say 7.5 per cent instead of 7 per cent), the amount available in that year would be around `30,000 crore. This is less than one third of the assessed fiscal impact of the Commission’s recommendations. Once sufficient “additional” growth has been achieved — say over the next three years — the recommendations can kick in. Alternatively the implementation can be staggered annually. This forces government to perform before increasing the “real” pay of its employees. From the citizens’ point of view this is akin to hiring an auto rickshaw. You only pay after the driver has brought you to your destination — not in advance.
No ice cream without results
There is more evidence of excessive generosity. An assured annual increment of 3 per cent seems too generous for an inflation-indexed salary even though it is calculated only on the basic pay. Unearned annual increments should not be more than 1 per cent at best.
Fauji “pension edge” levelled yet again
The concern with equity has driven the commission to extend the principle of One Rank One Pension — granted by the government to the armed forces just prior to the submission of the Commission’s report — to civilians also. This is akin to compounding an earlier mistake. Levelling the armed forces’ and civilian pensions means taking away the “pension edge” which was so tenaciously fought for and won by the armed forces. The downside is that it may spark off a second round of fauji gussa (anger).
The Commission has done stellar work in sharing employee demographics for the first time. It has also laboriously listed an incredible 196 different allowances and worked meticulously to simplify and rationalise them by recommending termination of 52 and clubbing 36 others into other allowances. That still leaves 108 allowances to be dealt with later. The government would do well to heed the advice that fuller and more transparent budgeting of allowances is necessary.
But pay commissions, despite their expansive mandates, are not really expected to create a new architecture for public service. Their job is to shut the maximum number of mouths with the least amount of cash. The Justice Mathur Commission could have done worse. Thank God for small mercies!
Adapted from the authors article in the Asian Age November 22, 2015 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/it-s-rip-127