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Millennium Post

A selective ageism?

The continuing use of an age-based retirement system for public servants is an inefficient practice that holds more visible flaws as opposed to any provable merits

The reason behind the retirement of public servants after a prescribed upper age is believed to be a decline in physical and mental abilities with the advance of age. But the striking fact that defies such logic is that retirement is largely associated with public offices whose expenditures are charged to the State exchequer. On the other side of the fence, professionals, craftsmen, artists, scientists, and writers continue contributing their best till their last breath. Strangely for daily wage earners at the bottom of the social strata and big businessmen on the extreme top of the economic ladder, retirement has no meaning; let alone political leaders who are indispensable for running governments. There is no law restricting a politician on grounds of age either to contest in polls or to hold a public office. So, will it be scientific to say that only public servants must necessarily be retired on grounds of age?

Branding an employee above sixty years of age as physically and mentally inefficient is no less than labelling a drug with an expiry date. It is but ageism in its crudest form. Some countries like Australia, Canada, France, Netherlands UK, US, Iceland etc. are way liberal in prescribing 65 to 67 as upper age for retirement. However, this is more to do with an increase in life expectancy, thanks to the advancement of science and medicine in the 21st century, rather than to do with the logic of retirement.

It's difficult to quantify the efficiency of public services as affairs of governance cannot be run in a businesslike manner, as opposed to the production of goods in a private factory. What matters is accountability in delivery which is far different from a business entity with profit and loss arithmetic. Provided the employee is fit and willing to work, age factor, far from being a bane, can always prove to be a boon as maturity and judgment gained over the years helps in addressing sensitive issues more responsibly. But sadly, the institutional experience gained, and the knowledge earned by public servants will all suddenly become deadwood on retirement which is but a glorified condemnation of a valuable resource.

An oft-repeated reason for retirement age is the provision of employment for the unemployed. But such an argument is demolished on the face of it by the very fact that there are more than 78,000 vacancies in all the three armed forces, still not filled and interestingly the retirement age out in them is far lower than that of civilian posts i.e., between 52 to 56 years of age; and in lower ranks, it is even less than 40 years. The reason is, youth find white collared, risk-free, cushy jobs more attractive than defence services.

Granted that retirement age is logical, still, such a prescription only reduces public services to a mere another opportunity of livelihood rather than a qualified engagement with the larger goal of democracy i.e., service to the public. We can't well blame the protagonists of ageism either, in this context, for unfortunately over the years, public services got transformed into the former, if the numerous employees' associations are any evidence. These are no less than trade unions frequently agitating for a hike in pay, allowances and promotions, with threats of pen-down strikes. Worse is that in spite of PC Act, Lokayukta, and other vigilance agencies, public servants enjoy enviable legal protection that it's almost impossible to 'fire' anyone unlike in the private sector. No wonder people do not prefer government schools and hospitals, but they leave no stone unturned in trying for a government job.

The advantages of age-based retirement policy are never documented though, the disadvantages are visibly plenty. Firstly, a permanent and secure service until 60 years has the potential to convert a service into a career which encourages inefficiency. Secondly, it dispirits an employee and affects the output in the last years as the organisation too begins to lose interest in him. And thirdly, the survival instinct being predominant greed for post-retirement appointments through quid pro quo deals seduces people towards the forbidden apple. However, it is not to advocate eternal appointments either, but to explore a system of utilising human resources on yardsticks of productivity and accountability irrespective of age. Though such arrangement is provided for in 'Sec 56(J)' of Fundamental Rules (FR) known as 'compulsory retirement', unfortunately, it applies only after 55 years of age or 30 years of service and with full pensionary benefits which practically is no deterrent against inefficiency or graft. A need for reforms in the system of public services is equally important as a review of retirement policy. We have to redefine public services accordingly in order to distinguish it from a secure career or a permanent means of livelihood. Services need to be restructured with professional conditions replacing entitlement with accountability and job security with efficiency.

The economic survey 2018-19 predicts growth of population to be less than 1 per cent between 2021-31 and 0.5 per cent between 2031-41 owing to a fall in fertility rates akin to that of Germany and France. Secondly, the survey also says that the growth of the working-age population will decline from 9.7 million per year during 2021-31 to 4.2 million between 2031-41. The share of young people (0-19) has already started a decline and will drop from 41 to 25 per cent by 2041. It is clear that the older population with better life expectancy will continue at least for the next three decades. It is all the more reason to review retirement policy against the conventional wisdom in order to save huge expenditure on pensionary benefits (for those appointed prior to 2004 - enactment of NPS) and also to make use of the human resources of sixty plus.

Retirement is only a technical disqualification which is driven more by cost concerns rather than by judgement of employee's fitness. Today, retired personnel with increasing rates of health awareness and life expectancy are different from their counterparts in the last century. When numerous activities of governance necessitate trained manpower, it is unwise to confine them to homes.

It's worth mentioning that some states have a policy of contractual appointments for retired employees. However, it fits and starts without a uniform and streamlined system at the national level. An inventory of retired personnel from class four to class one can be prepared, with prospective effect for future both at the state and central levels and, made available online for need-based engagement in various departments. In place of formal reappointments, need-based services can be requisitioned on a voluntary and honorary basis with reimbursement of bare minimum expenses like transportation, mobile phone charges, etc., as retired personnel are otherwise paid handsome pensions anyway. With the National Pension System (NPS) in force which is contributory and relieves the State of the enormous burden of committed expenditure, the policy of age-based retirement hence should lose its relevance.

The writer is a former Additional Chief Secretary of Chhattisgarh. Views expressed are personal

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