The present retirement age of 60 years is disadvantageous to officers belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes as they generally join government service later than other officers

There is undoubtedly a need for greater representation of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (SC/ST) officials at senior levels of the bureaucracy including in crucial posts both in the States as well as the Centre. However, it is important that this objective is achieved without generating bitterness or creating further divisions in the civil service. The national social fabric is also under strain and any hasty step, regardless of the extent of political support it may receive on account of electoral reasons, should be avoided. The Attorney-General has warned that the constitutional amendment approved by the cabinet may fail the test of judicial scrutiny. If that were to happen, it would polarise society further and pit the courts against Parliament at a time when constitutional institutions are delicately balanced.

Issue of retirement

There is, however, a way to meet the need for higher representation of SC/ST officers in a context that would be equally applicable to all civil servants. It would nevertheless result in more SC/ST officers in positions of higher responsibility. The way ahead lies in adopting a completely different approach to the concept of retirement. The current system is based on age; thus a civil servant retires generally at the age of 60. From this age-based system, we should move to fixed tenures of say 37/38 years for all civil servants irrespective of joining age, provided they join before the maximum prescribed age for entry into a service.

The first reaction to this proposal will certainly be negative as it will be considered unfair to those who succeed in the very tough civil services entry examinations earlier than those who join later. This notion is rooted in the idea that the civil service is a race which begins at the stage of the competitive examination itself; thus officers who are off the block earlier should retain their advantage throughout their careers. This idea is flawed but because it is a part of our colonial heritage, it has a great hold on our thinking. There should, of course, be a level-playing field but the starting point should be the actual entry into a civil service, not the process leading to it.

A clarification is required as to how a fixed tenure system would meet the demand of reservations in promotions for SC/ST officers. The eligibility criterion for joining a service prescribes a minimum and a maximum age and there are cut-off dates for both. If a candidate is born even a day after the minimum cut-off date in the present system, he stands to lose a year’s seniority. This loss, which is entirely because of the accident of birth, is treated as unavoidable and inherent and hence is not considered unfair. The current age criterion is 21-30 years for general category candidates while the upper age limit is 33 years for Other Backward Classes (OBC) and 35 years for SC/ST candidates. Thus, those who join at ages approaching the maximum in the latter two categories stand little chance of making it to the top. Most would retire at joint secretary level or, at most, additional secretary, even if their service record is outstanding and they have shown their worth in assignments given to them. But a fixed tenure system would give all officers the opportunity to reach the top.

Annual confidential reports

The worst affected in the present system are SC/ST officers for they generally join later than general category officers. It is entirely appropriate that the maximum entry age is higher for them and this must continue for the historical disadvantages they have suffered and the widespread discrimination existing against them. The present system of retirement, however, gives with one hand but partially takes away with the other. It is, therefore, understandable that SC/ST officers want quotas in promotion. But this would not help the majority among them who join late. There is also a need to focus our attention on the feeling that SC/ST officers are not judged fairly in Annual Confidential Reports (ACR) relating to their performance and are denied promotions or crucial assignments. This feeling too must be fully addressed. The Supreme Court has held that ACRs have to be shown to officers reported upon. This has brought in a substantial measure of transparency but there is need to thoroughly overhaul the performance appraisal system. This is also because the court held in the same judgment that a promotion is a reasonable expectation and an ACR which does not lead to one should be considered as adverse.

The present system bristles with absurdities and contradictions. For instance in the Indian Foreign Service, an attempt was made about five years ago to make promotions tougher. It was not thought through and has led to a situation that unless an officer in most years gets the highest grade which is “outstanding,” promotions cannot be assured to joint secretary and levels above. Consequently, the second-highest grade which is “very good” is considered adverse. To top it all, reporting officers are advised that an “outstanding” grade should be given only rarely but this advice cannot obviously be followed. Soon the IFS will only consist of only outstanding officers! Perhaps there is a similar situation in other services too.

Date of birth issue

The proposed fixed tenure system will also provide a solution to the tendency to fudge one’s date of birth so that one can have the advantage of additional years of service. This was fairly widespread in times past but it still exists and in the present fixed retirement system is unfair to those who give their true age.

It may be argued that if maximum eligibility ages remain the same for different categories then some officers may retire between the ages of 67 to 72, and in this age group they will be too old to effectively discharge their duties. This could be addressed by a downward revision of the maximum eligible age while maintaining the present differential proportion for the three categories. In any event now, most retired officers remain in good health well after the current retirement age.

(The author, a senior diplomat, retired recently from the Indian Foreign Service.)

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