There are two facets to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement about recruiting 10 lakh people in government jobs over the next 18 months. From an economic perspective, the inability to create enough jobs for the ballooning population of working age has been a bugbear of this government. The Covid-induced damage to the economy and the slowdown before the pandemic ensured that the private sector would rather shed jobs to stay afloat than add them. Modi’s announcement is an acknowledgment of the reality that the government alone is in a position to create jobs right now. While the private sector could catch up, it may not be in time for the next general election in 2024, and then, certainly not in the numbers that are needed to make a difference. Politically speaking, the 18-month deadline becomes important for the BJP because the party would not want to face a dissatisfied young electorate, which it counts as a major constituency. While it makes political sense for the ruling party, does it make economic sense too?

A surge in employment, even if in government, can certainly ramp up tepid demand in a post-Covid economy while adding to sentiment. Besides, there are indeed critical vacancies that probably need to be filled quickly in sections of government such as in the Railways, the armed forces and the tax department, to name just three. But what causes discomfort is the 18-month deadline. Considering that this is a sudden announcement and the fact that there doesn’t appear to be any framework for recruitment in the various ministries and departments (except the Agnipath scheme in the armed forces), it does appear that the timeframe is tight. A massive recruitment programme such as this should be thought through carefully, vacancies of the right kind in government/PSUs need to be identified and the skill-sets necessary in a candidate to fill these should be clearly defined. Such a short deadline could work against a well-orchestrated plan of action. Hopefully, some of the critical vacancies will be filled immediately with the right talent even as a plan of action for the others is drafted by the concerned ministry/department.

Apart from assessing workforce needs rationally, thought needs to be given to the terms of employment. An ill-considered addition to the workforce will end up creating a burden for future governments, shrinking room for development expenditure. For every government job created in the current system, there is a legacy left behind for future governments to handle in the form of pensions and other privileges. In this context, the government should examine the feasibility of replacing the system of permanent employment with a liberal contractual system, based on periodic performance-based reviews. Government jobs should not be seen as a privilege to be dished out to voters who consider them as a sinecure. With technology offering solutions to replace humans in mundane jobs, the government should gradually move towards recruiting only for the skilled jobs in its ranks. That’s the only way for the government to keep its salaries and pensions bills in check even while it merrily adds to its workforce.