India has only a fifth as many public servants as United States, relative to population. The highest ratios of public servants to population among the Indian States are in the conflict-torn or border regions

Long reviled for being bloated, India's Central and State governments in fact have just a fifth as many public servants as the United States, relative to population. The figures raise doubts, ahead of a Union budget that is likely to slash social-sector spending, on whether the country has the personnel it needs to improve governance and ensure universal access to services like education and health.

Data compiled from multiple sources, including a 2008 official survey, Right to Information applications, media reports and the 2011 census show, India has 1,622.8 government servants for every 100,000 residents. In stark contrast, the U.S. has 7,681. The Central government, with 3.1 million employees, thus has 257 serving every 100,000 population, against the U.S. federal government's 840.

This figure dips further if the 1,394,418 people working for the Railways, accounting for 44.81 per cent of the entire Central government workforce, are removed. Then, there are only about 125 central employees serving every 100,000 people. Information technology and communications services account for another 7.25 per cent of the Central government's staff.

Eminent economist V.K. Ramachandran says: “One of the most important lessons of the economic history of modern nations is that the most crucial requirements of social transformation can only be delivered by the public authority. A government that does not pay for skilled personnel to deliver education, health and land reform is one that condemns its people to under-development.”

The Central government's figures also show that 59.69 per cent of public servants belonged to Group C and another 29.37 per cent to Group D — the two lowest paid categories. Though these workers are important, the numbers suggest there are system-wide shortages of skilled staff and administrators.

Interestingly, the data show a marginal decline of 0.13 per cent in the size of the Central government in 2008 from 2006, though the population grew.

“People keep complaining the government is too big,” says Ajai Sahni, director of the New Delhi-based Institute of Conflict Management (ICM), “but the figures show that it is in fact too anaemic to govern the country.” The ICM, which spent over a year assembling the data, discovered that only some States even had centralised records on their employees — and there were no published estimates of staff members needed to realise new development objectives.

The highest ratios of public servants to population among the Indian States are in the conflict-torn or border regions, where the Central government has made special funding available for enhancing employment in an effort to contain discontent. Thus, Mizoram has 3,950.27 public servants per the 100,000 population, Nagaland 3,920.62 and Jammu and Kashmir 3,585.96. Bar Sikkim, with 6,394.89 public servants per 100,000, no State comes close to the international levels.

For the most part though, India's relatively backward States have low numbers of public servants. This means staff members are not available for the provision of education, health and social services needed to address the worst kinds of poverty. Bihar has just 457.60 per 100,000, Madhya Pradesh 826.47, Uttar Pradesh has 801.67, Orissa 1,191.97 and Chhattisgarh 1,174.62

This is not to suggest there is a causal link between poverty and low levels of public servants: Gujarat has just 826.47 per 100,000 and Punjab 1,263.34. The data could explain, though, why even well-off States like these have found it tough to ensure universal primary education and eradicating poverty.

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