Faced with a severe manpower shortage and with work on implementing the 11th Plan (for 2007-12) suffering, the Planning Commission is embarking on a potentially controversial move to recruit consultants.
The commission currently has 85 vacancies, mostly at the entry and middle levels. The total sanctioned staff strength of the commission is around 260—of this, 60 are administrative staff and the balance experts. The department of personnel and training (DoPT) has issued a guideline to the commission that it can engage 25 consultants who hold a post-graduate degree in the relevant subject. DoPT has further said that of the 25, two could be retired or about-to-retire government officials. It has also allowed the commission to hire an additional 25 consultants. All 50 consultants will have to complete their assignments and leave the commission by 31 December. The commission’s advisers and its deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia have to identify consultants and give their requirements to DoPT by Friday.
“We need to fill up the vacancies soon. The Planning Commission needs specialists and people who can think out of the box,” says Ahluwalia.
However, not everybody at the commission is in favour of the move. “The Planning Commission is losing much of its sheen as consultants, who sometimes are absolute novices, are replacing regular officers,” said a senior officer at the commission.
The commission has two kinds of officers: cadre-based officers, who come from the Indian Economic Service and the Indian Statistical Service, and ex-cadre-based ones, who respond to the commission’s ads and are interviewed by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC). Vacancies of cadre-based officials have to be filled by the ministries such as finance and statistics and planning; and the ex-cadre posts are filled by UPSC through direct interviews. Both processes have been slow.
The commission has a dynamic role today, said Ahluwalia. “If you need a super-specialist in the area of health today and an expert in the area of climatic change after two years, it will be useful to hire consultants in those fields for the required period,” he says.
With a maximum consolidated salary of Rs26,000 per month and no dearness or travel allowance and no perks such as staff car, consultants were not exactly getting a good deal, Ahluwalia adds. The commission currently has 41 consultants.
According to Pronab Sen, chief statistician of India and a former member of the Planning Commission, there is a need to balance the flow of experts from both sides—regular officers and consultants. “For formulation of a plan, one needs to have seen workings of previous plans, which will help identify the problems more easily; this is where the role of a regular official figures. But once the problem is identified, the correction can be done by an outside expert or a consultant. The two cannot substitute each other,” says Sen.
Sen says the commission has never addressed issues related to career progression for its officers. A mid-level official at the commission, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the press, says that the commission was originally meant to be a body of experts such as economists and statisticians but had become a place where “expertise has come to mean bureaucrats.”
“The organization is top-heavy, with officials ranking at advisers and above. They are not the most dynamic of people,” he adds.