Of the crores of Indians vying for government jobs, hardly half a per cent are able to qualify for them. Despite the uneven odds, why do Indians still chase them? The usual reasons for running after government jobs (such as job security) are in reality the result of a deep-seated class tension between a productive and unproductive class.
IN a recent written reply to the Lok Sabha, the Union Government stated that only 7.22 lakh out of 22.05 crore applicants were recommended for appointment to its various departments in the past eight years. It stressed that generating employment and improving employability were its priorities, and listed several flagship schemes aimed at these problems.
On June 14, the Prime Minister had announced that government recruitment for 10 lakh people will be done in “mission mode” over the next year and a half. For a nation that boasts massive governance at all levels, this is probably an imperative response to the lack of State capacity. But given exactly these facts, it is clear that the mismatch stems from deeper issues.
During COVID-19, there was an observable surge of demand for government jobs, while hiring experienced a crunch.
The demand for government jobs has steadily risen in India. During COVID-19, there was an observable surge of demand, while hiring experienced a crunch. In fact, hiring has declined progressively since 2014-15 (with the exception of 2019-20). On the surface, popular notions about the ostensible perks of such jobs, including security, flexibility, allowances, and ensured off days, seem to fuel this phenomenon.
Openings at various levels across states frequently witness applications from overqualified candidates. At the same time, it is well known that a majority of popular notions about public sector-employment are, to a degree, myths. Are public service aspirants simply unaware of this?
In his recent research paper, labour economist Kunal Mangal states that the “value of a government job in India far exceeds the nominal wage, indicating that amenities comprise a large share of total compensation.”He has studied how the intensity of competition motivates apparently irrational behaviour and has adverse fallouts on the labour market.
Generally, because government exams are highly competitive and the jobs they lead to are scarce, most aspirants have to remain unemployed for prolonged periods while preparing. Their investments in time and effort are for nought if they do not qualify. This kind of skill-building is not very relevant vis-à-vis private-sector jobs. Even when candidates are aware and possess accurate knowledge, the value of government jobs may be disproportionately high.
In his essay on the different kinds of entrepreneurship, American economist William J. Baumol said that the level of entrepreneurial initiative in a society is more a matter of ‘what kind’ than ‘how much’. In other words, entrepreneurship is always present in any given society; the surface-level difference emerges due to the channels it finds — productive (market-based free enterprise) and unproductive (organized crime or rent-seeking).
The worth of any innovative action comes from what entrepreneurial players allocate it to, which depends on the relative payoffs society offers to various activities. To illustrate this, Baumol notes the example of medieval China, where the State bureaucracy was considered so prestigious that it suppressed the appetite for risk-taking behaviour in the population.
We find ourselves in a similar situation in India. Perhaps a remnant of our colonial past, the cultural bias towards securing one’s position by being part of the State apparatus stands firm. It is a tacit rule of this game to disproportionately reward social status, under which power, profit, prestige, and limited accountability are afforded without commensurate value addition.
Government jobs disproportionately reward social status, under which power, profit, prestige, and limited accountability are afforded without commensurate value addition.
This sets in motion a cycle wherein the general rules motivate the realization of unproductive activities, and these activities raise the value accorded to positions that enable them, thus reinforcing the general rules. Two social classes emerge from this churning: one that can access rents by being in positions of authority, and another that cannot, by either having opted out or failing to make it.
Government intervention in the form of taxation creates a dichotomy between the class producing wealth and the class expropriating it. The scale and scope of the rent-seeking activities of the latter expands inordinately relative to the savings and investments of the former. As a result, a statist ideology gains a stronghold in policymaking. Its rhetoric serves to equate ‘the State’ with ‘the people’ to hide the real mechanics of misappropriation.
The competition for sarkari naukri, that is, government jobs, stems from this class tension in our society. A cross-sectional layer of our population that falls outside the State can never fully affirm itself as an autonomous class because the State looms astoundingly large in its daily life.
Jobs ranging from civil services to university administrations are rife with varying degrees of rent-seeking. An economic culture that valued individuals more than the State would spontaneously adjust to flag these channels and reduce their value. In its absence, these rackets do not even register as such, unless extremely apparent.
Today, while the administrative elite circulates among government departments, a significant section of service-people are hired on a contractual basis. Long waiting periods to fill up scant positions are normalized, creating an unproductive stickiness, while rents and regulations stifle the private sector.
The main takeaway here is that we must raise our class‐consciousness to probe these underlying values and increase the scope and popular worth of productive action.
Officials must follow service conditions, where their incentives shift from effective public service delivery to policing and planning public preferences. A Central Vigilance Commission document minced no words in admitting to this malaise. It states that 91 per cent of bribes were demanded by government officials, and 77 per cent were to avoid harm rather than gain something. Of these, 51 per cent were for delivering services to which people are already entitled.
To clarify, this does not mean that all candidates and office-holders are motivated by any particular ideology. Neither does it imply, simplistically, that our society has distinct good and bad, or productive and unproductive, classes. What it does reveal, however, is the hidden incentives embedded in our social norms, which shape both our attitudes and State policies in a big way.
The main takeaway here is that we must raise our class‐consciousness to probe these underlying values, and increase the scope and popular worth of productive action. If we are to heed Baumol, this may happen in two ways — by tweaking policies to change the rules of the game, or by waiting for long-drawn cultural shifts. But there may not be any one best way to cut this Gordian knot.