At a dinner hosted by a friend last week, I met a secretary in an important ministry at the Centre who was unhappy that she would have to retire next month. She would turn 60 and the rules stipulate that government employees have to retire when they reach that milestone in their lives. An achiever and a fine bureaucrat who is held in very high esteem both by her peers as well as anyone with whom she has worked, she thought that age limit was unfair because she believed she still had enough energy — physical and mental — to work for a few more years. A brief conversation with her convinced me that she was probably right.
Hers is not an isolated example. In the corridors of Delhi’s ministries (and also in state secretariats across India), you routinely come across officers who are like her: competent, efficient, productive; but, sadly, also on the verge of retirement. The Central government increased the retirement age for civil servants from 55 to 58 in 1962; and in 1998, to 60. Since then, there have been many proposals to increase it further — to say, 62 — but every time they have been stymied. Mainly because of concern for the lower tiers of officers: the longer the topmost tier of senior officers continues, the lesser are the chances of moving up for those below them.
After all, it is a pyramid with a broad base and a rather narrow top. Take the Indian Administrative Service, to which the officer I mentioned at the beginning belongs. There are 96 secretary-level officers; and 100 additional secretaries, a step below that; but as many as 450 joint secretaries. Simple math would suggest that only one out of five joint secretaries stands a chance of becoming a secretary. And if secretaries hang around for, say, two additional years, for some of their older lower-ranking peers, moving up could be harder. No wonder that secretaries privately complain about the “joint-sec lobby”.
It’s not math but merit that ought to decide whether someone makes it to the top. That’s also why it may be time to revisit the retirement age for India’s civil servants. Indians, like people in the rest of the world, are living longer and staying younger. In countries such as the US, Germany, Japan and Australia, civil servants get to work till they are much older: in the US and Australia there is no mandatory retirement age; in Germany and Japan, it is 65; and in France 62. You can argue that those are places where the workforce grows at a trickle compared to India, where half of its 1.2 billion people are under 35. But should making room for the young be the rationale for throwing out the still very competent old ones?
The private sector has been more pragmatic. In many large groups, senior managers work till they are 65; in some, such as the Tatas, non-executive directors can work till they are 70. The idea is to tap the experience, skills and wisdom — something the government could also emulate, particularly for bridging the serious skills deficit that plagues many departments. As executive chairman, Ratan Tata took his group global by buying Tetley Tea in 2000 (his age then: 62); acquiring European steel giant Corus in 2007 (he was 69); and taking over Jaguar Land Rover in 2008 (he was 70).
In government too, there are obvious examples. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is 63, his top ministers Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj are 62; and Arun Jaitley is 61. Assuming this regime does the full term, all of them will be five years older at the end of it — and still, arguably, good to go. Some former civil servants who’ve become Modi’s top aides prove the point even better: his principal secretary Nripen Misra is 69 as is his national security advisor Ajit Doval. Why then should that good secretary I mentioned retire next month?