Cover Story

Retirement blues and the ‘joy of doing nothing’!

To retire is not a pretty thought for many civil servants who hanker for extensions or sinecures. But then there are some who revel in doing nothing while in service to prepare for post-retirement life

dec2014-img-13FRetirement Blues…
OR India’s civil servants there are two kinds of retirement—one, compulsory (at age 60) and two, voluntary (after 20/30 years of qualified service). The overwhelming majority drink the civil service cup to the brim before fading out. But the resourceful among them, who have access to powerful patrons, enjoy one or two more helpings by way of extensions, sinecures, independent directorships, high-level committees or re-employment. I belong to the voluntary category. True to my belief that ‘one lives but once’, I had academic and army stints before entering the civil service, which I left 15 years before time to experiment with a corporate career, consultancy, entrepreneurship, politics and public causes. I never belonged to the ‘inbreeding pool’ from which ‘experts and specialists’ are drawn for commissions, tribunals, directorships and other coveted post-retirement assignments.

There is simmering public anger against the proliferating practice of post-retirement largesse to civil servants who develop the habit of ‘bending like reed’. This practice is attributed to “the tendency among civil servants to serve their political masters more than the public”. The perception is that only such ‘politician’s servants’ are rewarded with extensions and sinecures well past their retirement age!

These concerns are indeed valid. In 1998, when the retirement age of All India Service Officers was raised from 58 to 60, the DoPT Notification clearly stated that ‘no extension in service shall be granted beyond the age of 60 years’. But subsequent substitutions/insertions in the AIS Rules made this a mockery. A notification in 2005 provided for six months’ extension to a Chief Secretary of State governments. In 2007, “extension in service to the incumbents of the posts of the Cabinet Secretary, Defence Secretary, Home Secretary, Director, Intelligence Bureau, Secretary, Research and Analysis Wing and Director, Central Bureau of Investigation for such period as deemed proper” was allowed. In 2011, the Cabinet Secretary’s extension was taken to four years while restricting the others to two and giving a further three months’ extension to the Home and Defence Secretaries. All this was done in ‘public interest’, whatever that meant!

Once this dilution took place in AIS Rules, it spread like wild fire in State governments where favourites and agenda-men were rewarded with sinecures of all sorts! Faced with uncomfortable questions on the lack of clarity in allowing some of its officials to continue in service after retirement, the government conceded in Parliament that post-retirement appointment on contract basis is not covered by the rules defining extension of service. This is a typical way of hoodwinking!

India’s civil services is built around a 35-odd-years’ career, with one way in after college and one way out at retirement. It thus has turned out to be a place for employees who care more about long-term security than short-term achievement. Now they want the security to last longer and go beyond the present age of 60. Recently, a PIL was filed in the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court, seeking direction to extend the retirement age of officers of All India Services from 60 years to at least 65 years. According to the petitioner, IAS, IPS and IFS officers retire at 60 years, while people of about 80 years and sometimes even more continue as President, Prime Minister, Governor and Chief Minister, Minister and MLAs.

There is simmering public anger against the proliferating practice of post-retirement largesse to civil servants who develop the habit of ‘bending like reed’. This practice is attributed to ‘the tendency among civil servants to serve their political masters more than the public’

Indeed so. Did we not see Morarji Desai assuming prime ministership at the age of 81 and M Karunanidhi, past the age of 90, aspiring to be again the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu! Atal Behari Vajpayeee became Prime Minister at the age of 74 and Manmohan Singh at 72. As for Governors, as someone said, Raj Bhavans have become geriatric wards! Then, why can’t the civil service also become one officially? Aren’t civil servants pulled out of retirement in their 60s and 70s and appointed to heavy and hard responsibilities like principal secretaries to the Prime Minister and Chief Ministers? The present government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has determined 75 as ‘retirement’ age for the political executive. Why not the same age limit for civil servants also? Or, for that matter, why not abolish retirement itself so that bureaucrats can serve for a full lifetime and die in harness? This can save them anxiety and depression, particularly in the transition period (adjusting from work life to retired life). During this odd period of life, many civil servants reportedly experience these pangs because suddenly they have all this free time with no commitments, no files, no meetings, no staff cars and attendants, which have been part of their lives while in office.

Studies reveal that retirement blues lead to identity crises for those who have not developed an independent personality. Professor William Leber, of the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine and a specialist in neuropsychology, has this to say: “People literally just vegetate. Some haven’t the slightest clue what to do with themselves. They find themselves cut off from their daily routine and their social circle. If they defined themselves by their work and the people they work with, when retirement comes, they are cut off from their identity”. A study performed by researchers at the Georgia State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill bears out the correlation between retirement and depression. Among those interviewed in the age group of 58 to 64, ones who kept working scored high for self-esteem, while retirees who had high levels of education showed an increase in depression and faced identity crises. This is a perfect fit for India’s civil servants and no wonder there is such a desperate bid and knee-bending to land some extension of service or post-retirement sinecure.

DOES this make out a case for ‘service in perpetuity’? Before going the whole hog on this, let us see as to what impact retirement has on the mental and physical health of a civil servant. As per the Whitehall II longitudinal study (2003) of civil servants (aged 54 to 59), mental health functioning deteriorated among those who continued to work, but improved among the retired. However, improvements in mental health were restricted to those in higher employment grades. Physical functioning declined in both working and retired civil servants. The study found that retiring at 60, albeit with pangs, had no effects on physical health while there was improvement in mental health, particularly among high socio-economic status groups.

India’s civil servants belong to the ‘higher employment grades’ and ‘high socio-economic status group’ and, therefore, there is no case for ‘lifetime service’. But a reasonable retirement age is par for the course. Of the 64 countries surveyed, the highest retirement age of 68 is in Finland followed by 67 in Australia, Denmark, Greece, Iceland, Israel, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Sweden and the United States. Some countries have 66 as retirement age and many peg it at 65. The lowest is 60, which is the practice in several countries, including India, though Nepal is still sticking to 58.

But, before any meaningful debate could start on upping the retirement age, India’s civil servants must cease functioning as ‘politician’s servants’ and stop bending backwards for some odd post-retirement job or sinecure. In a scenario wherein the very relevance of AIS is under question, any talk of raising retirement age could be scorned. Besides, in a country throbbing with the ‘demographic dividend’ of a youthful population, the old must yield to the young; lengthening the work-life of civil servants could run counter to this imperative.

…and the Joy of doing Nothing
BUT then, why bother so much about retirement age when one can revel in the ‘joy of doing nothing’ while earning a fat salary and perks in service?! This is a story from Germany where the retirement age is 65. A civil servant there has admitted that he “did nothing for 14 years” prior to retirement. The man, aged 65, sent a farewell message to 500 colleagues on his retirement day, boasting that he had earned £613,000 (`59,37,390) for doing no work: “Since 1998, I was present, but not really there. So I’m going to be well prepared for retirement—Adieu,” he wrote in the leaked email. The unnamed man, who had worked in a municipal office since 1974, accused the authorities of creating inefficient, overlapping and parallel structures and jobs, leaving him with nothing to do. This is the real ‘joy of doing nothing’ and getting paid for it!

This may be an exception in Germany but a norm in India, and I had a taste of this. We have an Association of Retired IAS Officers in Chennai of which I am a founder-member. Around 100 members meet every quarter for a sumptuous lunch and a few hands of tambola. Some senior founder-members of the Association were of the view that such an elite/intellectual body, with vast exposure and experience, should have some public conscience and occasionally take up important issues for deliberation. Accordingly, I wrote to the Secretary of the Association, seeking time to speak during the luncheon meeting convened in October 2013. He, in turn, circulated this email to the members. The matter I wanted to raise pertained to the humiliation of the IAS following the arrogant and arbitrary way the young Durga Shakti Nagpal was suspended by the UP government. ‘Redefining IAS’, on which I had written an article in gfiles, was to be my theme.

As I was about to be invited, someone jumped on the stage and put up a vitriolic show couched in humour, extolling the virtues of the ‘joy of doing nothing’. He had come well-prepared. I was flabbergasted, but, immediately, it dawned on me that the side-show was organised by some senior office-bearers to snub me and convey the message that they are happy with the ‘joy of doing nothing’. They were in no mood to tolerate my nonsense. Obviously, the German had many companions here! In anguish, I gave them a bit of my mind and walked out. Since then I am persona non grata and has been shut out of the get-togethers!

In the subsequent exchange of emails, this is what one of the senior-most members of the Association wrote: “I had long ago stopped attending these luncheons, after conspicuously failing on the few earlier ones I attended to impress on the assembled gathering, representing hundreds of years of valuable experience of dealing with micro- and macro- issues, the need to discuss themes relating to clean politics, good governance and public service, and pursue with policy makers constructive suggestions to effect improvements. My heartfelt sympathies to my dear friend Devasahayam, who had to learn his lesson the hard way!” Nothing more need be said!

Vol. 8 | Issue 9 | December 2014

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