How bloated bureaucracy is a drag on Kerala's fiscal health

Representative image. Photo: Shutterstock/Stock-Asso

A close look at Kerala's financial health and Budget during the past four decades reveal the ever-increasing administrative cost.

The major expense is for distributing the salaries and pensions of serving and retired government employees.

Though the expenses have been on the rise, efficiency of employees has not shown a corresponding increase. The employees collective might thwart any move to bolster productivity.

Several committees have recommended the government to revise salaries once in 10 years instead of the current five years. The panels have also mooted the redeployment of excess employees and several initiatives to increase efficiency.

The government, which implements any recommendations to create additional posts, however, turns a blind eye towards suggestions made to boost efficiency.

Kerala Secretariat. File Photo.

Secretariat machinery
The State Secretariat has about 5,000 employees. Most departments in the Secretariat have a directorate as well. The result: Files on any issue are processed by both the department and the directorate concerned.

In short, a work that could be completed at one place is duplicated at different levels. Though this duplication of works could be avoided by restructuring the administrative system, nothing has been done so far.

The government went for grade promotions when there were a limited number of additional secretaries in the Secretariat. Though the situation has now changed, grade promotions are still being continued.

According to the current system, a section officer, after a stipulated period, will be promoted to the grade of under secretary. The under secretary will be promoted as deputy secretary. Periodic promotions continue to the grades of additional and special secretaries.

Some officials become additional secretary at the age of 45 itself, thanks to the trend of exaggerating the number of files to create additional posts.

Departments with five to six additional secretaries are also common.

PSUs and welfare boards
As many as 63 of the State's 113 public sector units (PSUs) are in the red. Only 50 PSUs made profits in the 2020-21 financial year, according to a Bureau of Public Enterprises report. The total loss, however, swelled to Rs 6,569.25 crore in 2020-21 from 2,621.99 crore in 2019-20.

Representational image. File Photo.

The financial situation of welfare fund boards is not different. Though schemes are necessary for the welfare of workers, the members of these boards could not even raise funds to run the institutions. Instead, the government provides funds to keep them afloat.

Welfare fund boards and corporations have become convenient places to accommodate political leaders. Though a directive was issued to cap the expenses of the board to a specified percentage of the members' contribution, it was not implemented.

So is the case with another order for merging 16 welfare fund boards and reducing their number to 11. The reason is that the posts available in these boards are mostly meant to accommodate politicians.

Implementing the directives will not be an easy task for the Left Democratic Front which has added more political parties to the alliance.

Representational image.

Party's celebration at govt's expense!
The CPM organised an exhibition of historical paintings and sculptures, titled, "History a Weapon", at the Collectorate Ground as part of its 23rd Party Congress held in Kannur in April.

The government held another exhibition-cum-sale fair on the adjacent Police Ground, as part of the first anniversary celebrations. The fair added to the grandeur of the CPM Party Congress.

Such fairs and related events were organised in all districts, barring Ernakulam. But in Kannur, the fair began three days before the Party Congress was inaugurated and continued till the party event concluded.

Interestingly, the government has not revealed the amount spent on the mega fair. When Dr M K Muneer raised the issue in the State Assembly, the chief minister replied that the "the fair was inaugurated in Kannur on April 3 with the intention of spreading its message to a larger audience."

A specific question on the expenses incurred received the usual answer: "Information not available."

KSEB office. File Photo.

Shady power deal?
Besides splurging, reneging on profitable deals, too, bleed the coffers. For instance, the government decided to drop a deal between the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) and Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC) just two hours before it was to be sealed.

The deal was to purchase 200 megawatt (MW) of power a year at Rs 3.06 per unit from NLC's thermal plant that is coming up in Odisha from 2026. The agreement, if signed, would have allowed the State to buy one unit of power at a price Rs 1.25 lesser than it has been shelling out now, and to save Rs 367 crore a year.

Incidentally, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma wrote to Union Minister Pralhad Joshi, seeking permission to purchase 600 MW from NLC's plant in Odisha to overcome the deficit his State has been facing.

The KSEB has not explained why it calledoff the deal for cheaper power at the last moment. NLC, too, has been kept in the dark.

The decision to drop the plan has raised unanswered questions: Who wants the government to buy power at a higher rate? Who profits from it?

The price of human rights
The Kerala State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) holds its sittings, besides organising awareness seminars, at several places as and when need arises. The sittings are not confined to district headquarters alone, the commission said.

In Idukki district, it has held sittings and seminars at Thodupuzha, Kattappana, Devikulam and Munnar. Similarly, the events are held at various places in other districts also.

The SHRC gets the most number of complaints from ordinary citizens in Munnar, Marayoor, Idamalakkudy, Devikulam, Kattappana, and Peermade in Idukki. The panel conducts its sittings at places such as Kattappana or Munnar, easily accessible to the complainants.

The under-construction complex for various commissions at Pattom is likely to be completed in a year. The SHRC said its office will be shifted to the new complex once its construction is completed.

Dinners that singe the tax-payers
Each minister hosts his cabinet colleagues, their families and personnel staff for dinner every month. It has been estimated that dinner would cost the government Rs 3 lakh.

The dinners do not benefit the ordinary citizen.

The government could save a significant amount if its stops paying for the dinner.

If the chief minister and minister adopt austerity as a message and implement it, the bureacracy and even the panchayat members at the grassroots-level would also follow suit. It would benefit the exchequer also.

Even as the government splurges huge amounts on houses and cars, it seems to be reluctant to financially support those in need, such as those requiring medical treatment and victims of natural calamities.

The Chief Minister's Distress Relief Fund received Rs 4,912 crore to build a new Kerala after the 2018 and 2019 floods. The government spent Rs 4,140 crore, and the remaining Rs 772 crore is still with the government.

When modernisation drive seldom comes in handy

The chassis of 25 mobile tank units have been lying idle for more than seven months at the fire station at Chakkai in Thiruvananthapuram.

The units were purchased as part of modernising the department, which spent Rs 4.5 crore for buying them at Rs 18 lakh per vehicle.

The units were meant for various districts, but are parked in Thiruvananthapuram since the fire department does not know when their bodies would be constructed.

A Haryana-based firm was awarded the contract three months ago for building the bodies at the rate of Rs 25 lakh per vehicle, which would come to Rs 6.75 crore.

The company has not yet provided a date on which the work will start. It attributed the delay to the death of its owner.

Fire department officials have been reiterating that the department has enough vehicles, but the newly acquired ones are part of its modernisation drive. The department had purchased 20 water tankers recently.

The scene at Chakkai, however, reflects the fact that the equipment procured as part of the modernisation drive seldom comes in handy during emergency situations.

It also raises questions on the government's priority. Were the procurement of the units based on need? If they were needed urgently, why are they lying idle? If there was no urgency, why Rs 4.5 crore was spent when the State has been undergoing a financial crisis?

Representational image. Photo: Canva

Who will plug the leak?
The latest State Budget presented a revenue deficit of Rs 39,117 crore, meaning the government will have to find sources to raise funds to meet the expenses.

With the Centre tightening the norms, Kerala could borrow only half of the Rs 39,117 crore. This calls for strict austerity measures, besides finding means to increase revenue.

The government has revamped the GST Department and initiated steps to roll out an efficient machinery to collect taxes with an eye on increasing its revenue.

However, it has not made any move to check the splurging of public money. The current trend is that the cabinet has been ignoring the Finance Department's objections on plans that would place an additional financial burden on the government. The cabinet passes such files, bypassing the objections.


Coordination: V R Prathap

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