No accountability in Consultant Raj

The flip side of India's unemployment conundrum is 1,499 govt consultants paid Rs 1–4 lakh a month. Two claim Rs 7.5 lakh each

Union home minister Amit Shah (left) with prime minister Narendra Modi. They seem to be discussing a book titled '1947' (photo: National Herald archives)
Union home minister Amit Shah (left) with prime minister Narendra Modi. They seem to be discussing a book titled '1947' (photo: National Herald archives)

NH Digital

Why would the labour ministry hire outside consultants when the ministry itself and NITI Aayog have domain experts? Why, when there are government-funded institutes and think tanks, not to speak of the Indian Institutes of Management and Technology (IIMs and IITs), to provide expert opinion and conduct studies?

While The Indian Express on Tuesday morning (30 January) reported that the Union government had engaged 1,499 consultants across 44 departments and was paying them Rs 302 crore as ‘fees’ overall, the more important question is: why were they hired in the first place?

Was there any screening? Was an exercise carried out to ascertain whether there was similar expertise available already on the government's payroll? What, indeed, explains the lack of expertise in our government departments, in areas that are most likely routine domains for them?

Possible explanations could be that consultants are easily hired and fired.

Their appointment can also be arbitrary, made on an ad-hoc basis—and need not involve the rigmarole of a duly advertised and overseen, fair selection process or competitive bids. Such appointments can thus escape scrutiny.

They can, in fact, be hired on the whim of a minister and bureaucrat.

And, of course, they may not claim post-retirement benefits.

Finally, said consultants are virtually impossible to hold accountable for either action or expressed opinion. Their recommendations may or may not be accepted by the ministries either—and they are thus easy for the ministries to relegate to arm's length.

The RTI response the Indian Express is based on also suggests that the consultants are often engaged for a fairly long time—which again begs the question: If the work they do is of a permanent nature, then why did the government not create and fill up actual posts for these jobs?

This figure of 1,499 consultants, by the way, does not include the 1,037 Young Professionals, 539 independent consultants, 354 domain experts, 1,481 retired government officers and 20,376 other low-paid staff hired on contract by 76 departments—these are either employed directly or through outsourcing agencies.

Of course, payment information for all these people is hard to come by. However, what we do seem to know is that the 1,499 consultants are being paid between Rs 1 lakh and Rs 4 lakh, and the Young Professionals are said to receive between Rs 50,000 and Rs 70,000 a month. This information was collated by the department of expenditure under the Union ministry of finance, based on the information received from 76 government departments about individuals and firms working with them on a contractual basis.

According to the report, the six departments with the highest number of consultants on the rosters are health and family welfare (203), rural development (166), agriculture and farmers' welfare (149), the ministry of housing and urban administration (147), woman and child development (112) and road transport and highways (99).

Meanwhile, NITI Aayog employs 95 individuals as Young Professionals at present.

Among independent consultants (as opposed to firms) hired on contract, the top three sets contribute to agriculture and farmers' welfare (86), NITI Aayog (52) and road transport and highways (41).

With the government abolishing Group D (peons, data entry, housekeeping, etc) recruitment, meanwhile, personnel for those jobs are now employed by agencies to whom these functions have been outsourced.

It's not just blue collar jobs that are outsourced, either, or smaller entrepreneurs being supported in their endeavours. The Big Four accounting and consulting giants—namely, Ernst & Young, PwC, Deloitte and KPMG—together secured projects worth nearly Rs 500 crore from various government ministries and departments, the RTI response revealed.

The Wire quoted former cabinet secretary K.M. Chandrashekar writing in the New Indian Express: 'The tendency towards outsourcing regular government work to consultants will ultimately adversely affect the quality of administration.'

In an article titled ‘Consultancy Raj not a cure for all government ills’, Chandrashekar noted several worldwide consultancy errors, calling 'accountability the biggest casualty' when relying on external consultants.

'The problem with public administration in India is not a lack of knowledge or the unavailability of qualified, well-trained officers,' Chandrashekar wrote, 'Many Indian civil servants have achieved tremendous results in particular areas, where they have built enduring systems and institutions, and have qualifications as good as the best in corporate India.'

'The challenge, really, is to build an overarching results-based system that takes into account the diversity of government work and is flexible enough to change according to need,' he said.

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