On the day after the Sixth Pay Commission recommended a 40% hike for government employees, I sat with someone who slammed the increase.

“These babus will just line their pockets more," she said. “Bribe us more to do less."

The irony here is that this person also happens to own a business—and I know for a fact that she doesn’t quite declare all the money she makes. Actually, very little.

So, who’s worse?

Really, it doesn’t matter. What is important, though, is that we apply the commission’s assessment and make-over for government against the backdrop of a public allegedly incensed by corruption, inefficiency and mediocrity to steer this sinking ship to safety. Indeed, the vessel is overloaded, so losing some weight might not be a bad thing—but there must be a way to hang onto the gems in the process.

“The 1950s and 1960s had this sense of idealism...patriotism...shared values of service to the nation," said Rajat Narain, explaining why he entered the Indian Administrative Services (IAS) in 1970. “The IAS appealed because it gave the chance to be at the grass roots, interact with the poorest of the poor."

And so, when Narain joined up, he was still a believer. But in the mid-1980s, as a member of the Uttar Pradesh (UP) cadre, he could no longer go on. Three reasons, he instantly offers when asked, as if he’s gone through the list so many times.

“First, in a state like UP, the political interference was very high. Then in a more general factor, there were too many constraints and so much red tape. Thirdly, one could barely make the two ends meet."

When he started in 1970, the monthly salary for an IAS officer was Rs400. Narain chuckles as he says the Imperial Civil Service (yes, that is what it stood for) in 1900 paid the same amount to a top-level officer.

“If one wanted to carry on?honestly," he says, “it was no longer possible."

So in 1984, he left, joining the senior management of a cement plant and becoming CEO. Years later, he started his own textiles export business and became involved in non-profit and volunteer work.

In many ways, the Sixth Pay Commission’s actions this week attempt to keep the Narains around, to keep the good guys in government. Late as they are, the overtures should be welcomed—and those like that friend of mine might want to consider what role they play in a system gone awry.

Instead, the reaction this week has dangerously distanced an ever-prosperous public from its government. One headline dubbed the pay hikes a “babu bonanza" and began the story with the words: “In a naked exercise of rewarding the bureaucracy at the cost of a nation…"

Naively, simplistically, I cling to a fundamental lesson from civics: Our government is a reflection of us. And the world’s biggest democracy is a farce and failure if politics, not people, is defining it.

The behemoth task before India now is to implement the less tangible aspects of workplace reform: pink slips for non-performance, elimination of redundant jobs, efficiency and innovation and healthy competition. Opening senior positions to non-government employees is a start to better work from the lower rungs, whose climb now seems as dependent on the passage of time as work ethic and output.

In the words of one civil servant I met this week, government offices have become a place “where donkeys and horses are treated the same".

One night this week, when the pay commission was replaced on the evening news by footage of another child stuck in a well, I headed to a government colony for a ground reality check. I met Suresh as he parked his scooter in the garage under his flat.

In 1991, months before the golden summer that would change everything, Suresh graduated from a National Institute of Technology (NIT) with a master’s degree. His father, a civil servant in Hyderabad, insisted his son follow in his footsteps.

Suresh, who declined to give his last name, now works for the Indian Meteorological Institute, earning Rs35,000 monthly. The new increase will up that to Rs45,000. His peers from NIT? “They earn at least Rs1 lakh a month," he said. “I, meanwhile, live hand-to-mouth."

“But everyone says people like you can flock to the private sector," I said. “Why don’t you?"

“My government sector job doesn’t help me in the private sector job," he said. “It’s all services and not much scope."

To me, that makes little sense. The pay commission should have borrowed more from the private sector’s playbook: increase investment in employees. Demand accountability. Some might leave, the good ones would see hope—and hang on.

Suresh says it is too late. He already has started telling his son, age 6, that there is no future in government work. We can prove him wrong.

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