Where is the staff to serve in rural areas and implement schemes?
Huge sums of money are allocated for the rural and agrarian sectors by the Union Government in its annual budget every year, and rightly so. But in the absence of adequate number of officials in rural areas, can the various schemes and programmes of the government be implemented properly? We will find the answer if we think about this issue deeply and the answer that would emerge should bother us as tax payers.
Let us look at the data on budgetary allocations first. The Union Government's expenditure on rural development was raised from Rs. 1,43,409 crore in 2019-20 (R.E.) to Rs. 1,44,817 crore in 2020-21 (B.E.). It may be noted that the budgetary allocation on rural development was Rs. 1,40,762 crore in 2019-20 (B.E.). So, the budgetary allocation on rural development as a proportion of total budgetary expenditure was 5.1 percent in 2019-20 (B.E.), which shrunk to 4.8 percent in 2020-21 (B.E.). Yet the amount of money allocated for rural development is quite large in absolute terms.
Now, let us see how the Union Government has been spending on agriculture and allied activities. Budget documents show that the Central Government's expenditure on agriculture and allied activities was enhanced from Rs. 1,20,835 crore in 2019-20 (R.E.) to Rs. 1,54,775 crore in 2020-21 (B.E.). The budgetary allocation on agriculture and allied activities stood at Rs. 1,51,518 crore in 2019-20 (B.E.). Therefore, the budgetary allocation on agriculture and allied activities as a proportion of total budgetary expenditure was 5.4 percent in 2019-20 (B.E.), which fell to 5.1 percent in 2020-21 (B.E.).
The budgetary allocation on agriculture and allied activities and rural development taken together was roughly one-tenth of the entire Union Budget expenditure in 2020-21 despite the cuts vis-à-vis budgetary allocations on these two sectors (relative to total budget) in the past year.
Under the Ministry of Rural Development, there are 2 separate departments, namely Department of Land Resources and Department of Rural Development. The figures pertaining to sanctioned posts and positions filled in all the 2 departments have been clubbed together to arrive at the rural development ministry level figures for sanctioned strength and positions filled, respectively, in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2018.
Please note that there are other ministries and departments too that serve the rural and agrarian sectors besides the Ministry of Rural Development and Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers' Welfare. However, for the sake of simplicity in order to get indicative results about the situation of government jobs in the rural and agrarian sectors, we have considered these two ministries in our analysis.
Table 1: Group-wise and Status-wise (gazetted and non-gazetted) Estimated Numbers of Central Government Civilian Regular Employees
Source: Reply to the Unstarred Question no. 1497 in the Lok Sabha (to be answered on 27th November, 2019), Department of Personnel and Training, Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, please click here to access
The latest available data shows that vacant posts as a proportion of sanctioned strength for Central Government civilian regular employees (gazetted and non-gazetted) was 27.47 percent in the Ministry of Rural Development as on 1st March, 2018. Similarly, vacant posts as a proportion of sanctioned strength for Central Government civilian regular employees (gazetted and non-gazetted) was a whopping 35.31 percent in the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers' Welfare as on 1st March, 2018. Please see table-1.
As a whole, vacant posts as a proportion of sanctioned strength for Central Government civilian regular employees (gazetted and non-gazetted) was around 18 percent as on 1st March, 2018.
Thus, it becomes quite clear that due to paucity of manpower on the ground, many of the important schemes and programmes intended for the rural and the agrarian sectors are not effectively implemented. Although agriculture is a state subject, most states have slashed recruitment of permanent employees, given their precarious financial health.
Has it always been like minimum government, and so minimum governance?
A recent academic paper by Aditya Dasgupta and Devesh Kapur says that bureaucrats are often blamed for poor implementation of government schemes and programmes due to their rent seeking behaviour and capture. Their article emphasises that local bureaucrats are often inadequately resourced in comparison to their responsibilities. Those officials who have fewer resources at their disposal often fail to implement rural development programmes effectively because they are unable to allocate enough time to perform managerial tasks. Bureaucratic overload crowds out managerial focus, thus making it especially hard to implement managerially complex programmes or schemes. Fewer resources are allocated to administrative units where political responsibility for implementation is less clear. Politicians do not adequately invest in local state capacity (such as staffing, training, equipment, etc.) because unlike economic actors like firms, they are not motivated by the efficiency logic. Electoral returns to the investments in local state capacity are diffuse and uncertain. On the contrary, ruling parties have clear incentives to claim credit for the announcement of ambitious new programmes or schemes in rural areas.
In their paper, Dasgupta and Kapur mention that “under conditions of bureaucratic overload, instead of focusing on their coordinating role, managers spend more time firefighting and on various particularistic tasks, crowding out managerial focus. For instance, when bureaucratic officials lack adequate personnel, instead of focusing on the planning and execution of programs and delegating particularistic transactions like addressing the individualized issues of citizens to specialized employees, bureaucratic officials must pitch in on these tasks. A similar issue arises when there are not enough physical resources, for instance computers or vehicles, to divide tasks between multiple workers—managerial tasks are crowded out by other tasks that utilize the finite physical resources and tools that are available."
Although investments in local state capacity such as additional staff and their training and equipment may lead to socially beneficial improvements in the speed and quality of service delivery, these investments do not take place. This happens because politicians are not sure whether such investments would lead to better electoral returns. “While bureaucratic resources improve implementation, attributing this improvement to the actions of particular politicians and parties is difficult for voters, especially because implementation is a noisy function of bureaucratic capacity as well as many other factors. It is especially difficult for voters to assign credit for improvements in bureaucratic resources and implementation to the responsible party in contexts of multi-level government combined with decentralization of authority, where rival parties and politicians may compete for the credit or shift blame (divided agency)”, state the authors of the paper entitled The Political Economy of Bureaucratic Overload: Evidence from Rural Development Officials in India.
Using the principal—agent framework, the article explains that since many agents (i.e. politicians) are involved in the production process, the principal (i.e. voters) can observe only the aggregate output but not individual action (of the politicians) as a result of which the electoral incentives of ruling parties and politicians to make costly investments in local bureaucracy is weakened in the first place.
Reply to the Unstarred Question no. 1497 in the Lok Sabha (to be answered on 27th November, 2019), Department of Personnel and Training, Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, please click here to access
The Political Economy of Bureaucratic Overload: Evidence from Rural Development Officials in India -Aditya Dasgupta and Devesh Kapur (2020), American Political Science Review, page 1-19, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003055420000477
Expenditure of Major Items 2020-21, Budget Documents, Ministry of Finance, please click here to access
News alert: More than 4 lakhs posts in the Central govt. lying vacant, shows latest available data, Inclusive Media for Change, Published on Aug 7, 2018, please click here to access
Over 6.83 lakh vacant posts in central govt departments: Personnel Ministry, PTI/The Hindu, 05th February, 2020, please click here to access
Image Courtesy: Inclusive Media for Change/ Shambhu Ghatak