In 2002, Kerala government employees and teachers went on an indefinite strike demanding the restoration of perks and privileges that were withdrawn by the United Democratic Front government. Rather than yield, the government took a tough stand and crushed the strike, even resorting to the draconian Essential Services Maintenance Act. Large publicity campaigns were launched inciting the general public against the striking employees, ensuring the strike received little sympathy. The government's publicly stated reason for all this was that the state's debts had mounted to Rs.23,000 crores at the time the UDF government took over from its predecessor a year earlier, and austerity was essential to restoring fiscal health. An embargo on new appointments to government departments was also imposed.
Move forward to 2005. The same UDF government is still at the helm of affairs, despite a change of guard - Oommen Chandy has taken over from AK Antony. The government has appointed new members to the Public Service Commission, increasing its strength from 15 at present, to 18. The PSC is responsible for recruiting manpower for the government. When a government which had previously imposed an embargo on new recruitments increases the strength of the body whose sole purpose is fresh recruitment, it is natural to assume that the economy of the state has turned a new, greener leaf, and that new manpower is needed to manage its growth.
But that is where contradictions lie. The Rs.23,000 crores of debt that the UDF inherited stood at Rs.37,452 crores on the 31 October 2004, an increase of 14,452 crores or 62.8%! Clearly, the need for austerity has not diminished; instead it has grown.
A glance at the annual revenue deficits is also revealing. It was Rs.3,147 crores in the financial year 2000-01, dropped slightly to Rs.2,606 crores in 2001-02, but shot up to Rs.4,122 crores in the fiscal year 2002-03. The performance was slightly better in 2003-04, when the deficit was plugged at Rs.3,680. This financial year (2004-5) the deficit is all set to cross Rs.5,000 crores. The government hass been forced to borrow from all available sources, including the Asian Development Bank. And even that was not enough; the government had to go in for Plan cuts for the fourth successive year. And the chairman of the Planning Board, Mr V. Ramachandran, is on record that the expenses incurred by various departments this year is expected to exceed their budget allocations by a whopping Rs.1,000 crores.
This is the background against which the government has decided to go ahead with new recruitments and also increase the strength of the PSC. This is being done even while the cuts needed to draw closer to austerity are incomplete. The government had identified over 17,000 employees as 'surplus' and they are to be redeployed. In fact there is a separate department in the Planning board, "The Decentralisation Support Programme" which has been toiling to restructure the local body administration by effective redeployment. But that programme has gone nowhere, with very little political support within the government itself, despite public statements backing it.
As a result, even as the government moans that 92% of the state's revenue is used to pay the salaries and pensions of its employees, it doesn't seem amiss to the leadership that that new members have been appointed in the Public Service Commission. It seems odd to add new members - not to forget their Rs.30,000 monthly salary each, along with a a personal assistant, and a chauffered car - to a body whose role is to oversee new recruitment when the existing staff are regularly labeled 'surplus'.
The proposed new spending could be explained if there were new resources to fund them. But what has the government done to augment its resources? Here too, the picture is dimal. Sales tax arrears to be collected are Rs.800 crores. This is a sum that has already been collected by the traders from the purchasing public, and simply not passed on the government. Rs.100 crores from the liquor barons are outstanding, as is additional amount of Rs.5,000 crores from lottery dealers.
Amidst the multiple contradictions, it is reasonable to conclude that these are political appointments, with no real reference to the state's need, or even any requirement that they perform their tasks meaninfully. Insufficient collection of due revenues, a lack of real committment to austerity in using current revenues, and the absence of any significant role for the recruiters combine to produce a farcical situation. Meanwhile, the fiscal position of the state only worsens each year. Even during years when the revenue deficit drops, it is nonetheless a deficit that adds to the already large debt burden. With the recent appointments, that burden has become a little heavier, and the hope for relief has receded even further. (Quest Features and Footage)