Dear Mr Modi who will sort out the mess at Food Corporation of India?

narendra_modi
Data released by the Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell(PPAC) suggests that on January 13, 2016, the price of Indian basket of crude oil touched $27.32 per barrel. I expect the government to increase the excise duty on petrol and diesel soon, to capture the benefit of this ‘further’ fall in the price of oil.

If and when this happens this will be the eight such rise since November 2014. While the government has been quick to increase excise duty on petrol and diesel in order to shore up its finances, the same enthusiasm has been missing when it comes to controlling wasteful expenditure.

Let’s take the case of the Food Corporation of India(FCI). Last week the Supreme Court was hearing a case concerning the loaders at FCI and the exorbitant salaries they draw. As the judges reacted: “The report shows that in August 2014, 370 labourers received more than Rs 4 lakh in salary. Around 400 others got between Rs 2 lakh and 2.5 lakh in the same month…How is that possible?

The judges were essentially referring to the Report of the High Level Committee on Reinventing the Role and Restructuring of Food Corporation of India (better known as the Shanta Kumar committee report). This report was released in January 2015.

In fact, as the Shanta Kumar committee report points out: “Some of the departmental labours (more than 300) have received wages (including arrears) even more than Rs 4 lakhs/per month in August 2014. This happens because of the incentive system in notified depots.

Interestingly, even those who did not get paid Rs 4 lakh in August 2014, get paid quite a lot. The average salary of an FCI worker was Rs 79,588 per month between April and November 2014, which is seven to eight times higher than what a contract labourer gets paid. As can be seen from the following table the average salary of a worker has more than doubled between 2009 and 2014.

Financial year Average Salary
2009-10 38459
2010-11 53389
2011-12 63763
2012-13 71358
2013-14 78549
April to Nov 2014 79588
Source: Shanta Kumar Committee Report

As the Shanta Kumar committee report points out: “FCI engages large number of workers (loaders) to get the job of loading/unloading done smoothly and in time. Currently there are roughly 16,000 departmental workers, about 26,000 workers that operate under Direct Payment System (DPS), some under no work no pay, and about one lakh contract workers. A departmental worker (loader) costs FCI about Rs 79,500/per month (Apri-Nov 2014 data) vis-a-vis DPS worker at Rs 26,000/permonth and contract labour costs about Rs 10,000/per month.”

There are a few points that need to be made here. First, is the fact that workers are paid different wages depending on how they are categorised, even though the do the same work. Hence, an FCI worker gets paid eight times that a contract worker gets paid. This is not fair.

The second point is why pay workers close to Rs 80,000 per month for loading and unloading stuff, when the same job can be carried out at the cost of Rs 10,000 or Rs 26,000 per month? This is a clear waste of money. The Supreme Court judges put the loss at Rs 1800 crore. This doesn’t sound much on its own, given the big numbers we are used to when we talk about the government.

But compare this with the plan outlay of the ministry of environment for 2015-2016, which is at Rs 1,446.60 crore. As the budget document points out: “The Plan outlay of Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change is Rs 1,446.60 crore. An Amount of Rs 758.16 crore is allocated for Ecology and Environment which, inter alia, includes Rs 63.14 crore Conservation of Natural Resources and Ecosystems, and Rs 213.05 crore for Research and Development, Rs 100 crore for National Coastal Management Programme and Rs 76.10 crore for Environmental Monitoring and Governance.  Rs 150 crore has been provisioned for National Adaptation Fund for Climate Change.”
The point being there are better ways of spending money than paying an FCI worker Rs 79,500 per month.

Also, it is not surprising that those making Rs79,500 per month or more, get cheaper contract labour to do their work. If I was earning Rs 4 lakh per month and was in a position to outsource my work to someone at the cost of Rs 10,000 per month, I would do the same thing.

As the Shanta Kumar committee report points out: “Some of the departmental labours (more than 300) have received wages (including arrears) even more than Rs 4 lakhs/per month in August 2014. This happens because of the incentive system in notified depots, and widely used proxy labour. This is a major aberration and must be fixed, either by de-notifying these depots, or handing them over to states or private sector on service contracts, and by fixing a maximum limit on the incentives per person that will not allow him to work for more than say 1.25 times the work agreed with him. These depots should be put on priority for mechanization so that reliance on departmental labour reduces.”

The Supreme Court judges have given the government a time of 10 days to respond on how this daylight robbery of the country can stop. “Labourers in FCI have an aggressive past. Officers have been murdered. There is a clique that is operating there and FCI has become a hen that lays golden eggs for them. The FCI is literally held to ransom by the labourers and their unions and there is something seriously wrong with it,” the Supreme Court judges said.

The prime minister Narendra Modi before he became the prime minister talked a lot about “minimum government maximum governance”. This is one area where the slogan can be put into practice. The loot of the nation by a few thousand workers of the FCI needs to stop. The money thus saved needs to be put to better use.

The question is will this stop? The trouble is that after being elected Modi has continued with the maximum government handed down to him. Any elected official (or for that matter even any individual) has limited time and mind-space to tackle things. This is even more true for this government, where the lack of ministerial talent is glaringly obvious and the government is run more and more by the prime minister’s office.

The prime minister’s office is busy with many things, propping up loss making units like Air India and MTNL, being among them. In this environment does it have the time and the mind-space to tackle the mess that FCI is in?

The column originally appeared in the Vivek Kaul’s Diary on Equitymaster

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About vivekkaul
Vivek Kaul is a writer who has worked at senior positions with the Daily News and Analysis(DNA) and The Economic Times, in the past. He is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. Easy Money: The Greatest Ponzi Scheme Ever and How It Is Set to Destroy the Global Financial System , the latest book in the trilogy has just been published. The first two books in the trilogy were published in November 2013 and July 2014 respectively. Both the books were bestsellers on Amazon.com and Amazon.in. Currently he works as an economic commentator and writes regular columns for www.firstpost.com. He is also the India editor of The Daily Reckoning newsletter published by www.equitymaster.com. His writing has appeared across various other publications in India. These include The Times of India, Business Standard,Business Today, Business World, The Hindu, The Hindu Business Line, Indian Management, The Asian Age, Deccan Chronicle, Forbes India, Mutual Fund Insight, The Free Press Journal, Quartz.com, DailyO.in, Business World, Huffington Post and Wealth Insight. In the past he has also been a regular columnist for www.rediff.com. He has lectured at IIM Bangalore, IIM Indore, TA PAI Institute of Management and the Alliance University (Bangalore). He has also taught a course titled Indian Economy to the PGPMX batch of IIM Indore. His areas of interest are the intersection between politics and economics, the international financial crisis, personal finance, marketing and branding, and anything to do with cinema and music. He can be reached at vivek.kaul@gmail.com

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