The government of India is poised to do another flip-flop over the retirement age for Central government employees. Three years ago the retirement age was raised and fixed at 60. The government is now going to propose that the retirement age be brought back to 58. In May 1998, the retirement age was raised, it was then said, at the recommendation of the fifth pay commission. Now the Gujarat earthquake and the need to cut back on government expenditure are being cited as the reasons for lowering the age to 58. There are grounds to suspect that both reasons — the one given in 1998 and the one being given now — are specious. In 1998, the government did not want to rock the boat and gratified the Central government employees by raising the retirement age. It was a piece of expedient populism which completely disregarded the consequences the decision would have on the exchequer. In 2001, a natural disaster is being made the alibi for a decision that needs to be taken, earthquake or no earthquake. It is a sign that the government of Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee lacks the courage to impose hard decisions on the basis of sound economic principles. It needs an excuse to do so. This does not augur well for the entire project of economic reforms, the success of which depends on the political will to take and implement decisions that may not be popular.
One of the pillars of the economic reforms project is the cutting down of wasteful government expenditure. This is absolutely crucial for reducing the fiscal deficit and the maintenance of macroeconomic stability. One area where cuts appear obvious is staff. It is evident to any observer that most government departments employ many more persons than are actually needed for the work. Providing government jobs is one way in which politicians extend their patronage. Overstaffing leads not only to the drain of resources but also to the absence of accountability, shirking of responsibility and to erosion of work culture. One has only to look into any government department to discover the veracity of this statement. Reducing the retirement age is one relatively painless way of shedding redundant staff and streamlining the organization. The words, “relatively painless”, are important. It should not be assumed by the government or any other agency that the task of streamlining and reducing staff is going to be smooth and easy. There is bound to be opposition and some amount of hurt. But these should not divert attention from the overall aim. This is where the government’s will and courage of leadership become significant. Unfortunately, Mr Vajpayee and his government have not always been steadfast in their decisions. Also, a right decision for the wrong reasons is not a sign of strong leadership. A government committed to reforms should not look for pretexts to take decisions that hit at vested interests.