Is it fair to ask bureaucrats to retire early?

Richa Mishra | Updated on August 29, 2019

The government is forcing non-performers out of the system but could this be misused?

On Monday, the government forced 22 high-ranking officers in the Indian Revenue Service to take early retirement. Just two months earlier, in June, 27 senior tax officials were compulsorily retired.

The government has always had the powers to retire an officer early in public interest, if necessary. The Fundamental Rule 56 (J) and Rule 48 of the Central Civil Services (Pension) Rules 1972, was introduced to reduce deadwood in bureaucracy, including public sector entities and autonomous bodies.

While Rule 56 can be exercised on officers who have attained the age of 50 and in some cases only after the officer is 55 years old, Rule 48 can be exercised any time after a government servant completes 30 years of service.

But rarely have these rules been invoked so often. While exercising this proviso of Premature Retirement is a bold move, there is understandably huge concern that it may be used vindictively. Also, it could hurt employee morale.

“There is a lot of deadwood in the bureaucracy and weeding out is needed. The bureaucracy needs to shed some of its complacency and sense of entitlement. It needs to be shaken up. The Fundamental Rule 56 (J) is an old rule. But its vigorous enforcement is new,” says Vivek Rae, a former Civil Servant.

Significant numbers

The numbers are certainly startling.

As retired bureaucrat, former Coal Secretary, Anil Swarup, noted in one article, “Between July 2014 and May 2019, about 312 officers of Group A and Group B Services have been recommended for compulsory retirement after reviewing performance of 36,756 officers of Group A and 82,654 officers of Group B.” A young serving officer, however, hails the move, saying, “I think it is a step to deal with blatant corruption, systemic complacency and pulling government employees out of their comfort zones, it has been invoked on repeat offenders till now. Although natural justice is not always honoured, you’ve got to live with that.” Another officer points out, “If supplemented by a policy for recognising excellent efforts in positive direction, this can work wonders towards improvement in bureaucratic career, especially in Group A, where the batch moves together in hierarchy irrespective of whether someone is capable, qualified, deserving or not.”

But how will the government ensure that these rules are not misused?

Rae says that clear guidelines must be issued. “Some subjectivity is inevitable since there is no foolproof mathematical formula for this. We have to rely on the judgement of the officers responsible for managing this process,” he adds.

Checks and balances

Public policy commentator Aashish Chandorkar feels that like in any other industry, in the government too, it is good to establish a link between performance on a given job and career evolution.

“At junior levels, the problem is lack of incentivisation and enforcing discipline, while at the senior levels, the stumbling block is lack of vision,” feels Chandorkar.

“The Department of Personnel & Training (DoPT) can address these issues through a carrot and stick policy. The compulsory retirement process can be a good filter in the above context,” he says.

However, there have to be enough safeguards, he is quick to add. “The checks and balances should be part of the review process so that there is no vindictiveness in how the system works. In general, good performance has to be given the right incentive to shine through,” he says. Anil Swarup agrees that there has to be a clear-cut case made out against the officers before any action can be taken.

Swarup points out that the instructions from the DoPT direct the ministries to ensure that the prescribed procedure, like forming an opinion to retire a government employee prematurely in public interest, is strictly true and that the decision is not an arbitrary one and is not based on collateral grounds.

Thus, some comfort can be drawn from here.

According to Prabir Jha, a former Civil Servant and HR leader now, “The historical baggage of assured tenure, but without commensurate performance or integrity, has been carried far too long. This largesse has to end. Improving accountability, reducing head count, leveraging technology and ushering in greater transparency cannot be only desired, it must be delivered.”

Jha cautions that outcomes will depend on how well and fairly it is executed.

“Not every bad apple has been marked out, with a very convenient and average performance appraisal culture for decades. The most corrupt or poor performers have also secured good ratings. Any other measure has the risk of being wrongly used. How well and comprehensively the exercise is carried out will be key, beyond tokenism,” he sums up.

Published on August 29, 2019

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