The MEA is juggling multiple strategies to improve its manpower, including the possibility of non-resident Indians joining its ranks.
New Delhi: The Ministry of External Affairs ministry (MEA) is currently drawing up a blueprint for increasing the strength of India’s diplomatic bench – “Expansion Plan 2.0” – even as it faces questions from a parliamentary panel about the quality of new recruits and their linguistic expertise.
Juggling multiple strategies to improve its manpower, the MEA is now saying that it is ready to welcome non-resident Indians to join its ranks, with a recommendation to the UPSC to waive the Indian language provision if such applicants have done half of their schooling abroad. In the appointment of Indian ambassadors, there are plans to give more weightage to language expertise, even as a key parliament committee bats for more political appointees to head Indian missions.
These are some of the highlights of the report of the parliamentary standing committee on external affairs in its latest report, “Recruitment, structure and capacity-building of IFS Cadre, including need for a separate UPSC examination for cadre, mid-career entry and in-service training and orientation”. The committee held four hearings on the matter since January 2015
The MEA’s current expansion plan, approved by the union cabinet, expires in two years. As foreign secretary S. Jaishankar informed the panel, 314 posts were supposed to be added in 10 years, but actual recruitment was short by at least 140 from the sanctioned strength of 912.
However, neither 912 nor the actual number of 770 Indian Foreign Service (A), or IFS, officers is the figure thrown up by the MEA when asked to make a comparison with the capacity of other foreign services.
The ministry uses a higher sum of 2700 to make a comparison with other foreign services – South Korea’s 1250, Brazil’s 2000, China’s 4500, Japan’s 5700 and the United States’s 20,000 diplomats. “We are, therefore, not among the smallest of the diplomatic services, but are also not among the largest,” the MEA concluded.
When pressed to give an account for using 2700 as its comparison figure, Jaishankar said that it included officers from the feeder services, attachés, secretarial staff and diplomatic officers from other ministries. If posted abroad, such officers would technically be diplomats, which, as Jaishankar explained, “would be [a] holder of [a] diplomatic passport and someone who is reflected in our declaration of diplomatic list to a country”.
Even as the current expansion plan continues for another two years, Jaishankar said the ministry has already begun talking of “MEA Expansion Plan 2.0 so that we can start the work because it takes time in the government to get the approvals and the financial concurrence necessary for that kind of growth”.
Assessments for recruitment
According to the ministry, Expansion Plan 2.0 will be a “three prolonged” affair aimed at increasing manpower based on an assessment for the next 15 years through direct recruitment into the IFS, lateral entry and beefing up local staff at missions across the world.
The ministry flatly dismissed any suggestion of a separate entrance examination for the IFS. “Conducting a separate exam will significantly reduce the catchment and thereby reduce the competition among the candidates. This will in turn reduce the quality of intake,” the MEA said in a written reply submitted to the panel, which is chaired by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor.
However, the MEA is amenable to some other changes, which have already been conveyed to the UPSC – an additional paper for those who give preference for the IFS, and extra weightage to a personality test.
The department of personnel and training, which deposed before the standing committee in December 2015, said that the MEA had already given inputs to the expert committee, which was reviewing the nature of the civil service examination. The expert committee has to submit its report to the MEA by August 11.
Not just that, in order to allow NRIs to join the IFS, the ministry has even “recommended to UPSC that they could consider waiving the Indian language provision for people who have done more than 50% of their schooling abroad,” according to the parliamentary standing committee report.
Asked whether NRI candidates could sit outside the country for the entrance test, Jaishankar said the venue of the examination was not the stumbling block. “They will have to take it [the entrance test] abroad. It would depend on the place. I think that is less of a problem than enabling enough people to think they could qualify and for which today the language issue is an important thing…”
The committee was also enthusiastic about this proposal, asserting that “wards of NRIs are capable of representing India’s interests globally in an effective and convincing way by virtue of their exposure and multi-cultural experience abroad”. However, they suggested that in lieu of the waiver, selected candidates should be required to have proficiency in a foreign language other than English, and also gain “working knowledge” in at least one Indian language during the probation period.
Quality of recruits
Even as there was emphasis on increasing the numbers of recruits, there was also a discussion on whether the quality of new IFS recruits had deteriorated, if their all India rank in the civil service examination was taken as the benchmark.
Jaishankar noted that in 2015, the first two among the IFS batch were ranked 14th and 37th respectively.
“…where does the Foreign Service stand in the pecking order? It is still not where it should be… I think, the year  I joined, it closed well before 37th,” Jaishankar said. The fall in the “attraction” of the foreign service was linked to the rise in “uncertainties of living abroad”, he suggested. “I think, even with the Foreign Service, for example, we have people whose spouses’ employment is disrupted by their being abroad. I think, as we open more missions in difficult parts of the world, people also realise that a foreign posting sometimes can be more difficult than even a posting in India.”
But, he added that he was not dissatisfied with the quality, with the IFS now becoming more diverse and less elitist. “There are many states, in earlier years, which may not have had members in the foreign service and interestingly, a lot of them, because they have held some job before they join the foreign service, they come to it with a very different mindset.”
In fact, the foreign secretary seemed to have heard of the same issue from his peers – and had a message for them.
“My sense is that if ambassadors take interest in training – which I must confess not all of them do – if we instead of complaining about the quality of intake instead say we are going to do something about the quality of training them for the future I think we would get a much better result. To my own colleagues in the ministry who complain about it I tell them, ‘Why do you not spend some time bettering the HR qualities of the people you have?”
Narrow view of lateral entry
Unlike the revolving door between academia and foreign service in other countries, the term ‘lateral entry’ in MEA parlance is just a euphemism for a deputation from another service or ministry.
According to the 2008 expansion plan, the MEA had set out 120 vacancies that were to be filled by officers on deputation over 10 years. Currently, there are only 66 “deputationalists” serving in the MEA.
The ministry started on a new path when it contracted four research scholars as consultants for its policy planning and research division. Recruiting consultants is slowly being expanded to other territorial divisions too. While the newly-hired consultants are academic researchers, the MEA already has 40 consultants with technical expertise attached to divisions ranging from development partnership to disarmament and international security affairs.
While the committee called for an expansion in such hiring, it had a specific target group in mind. “…the Committee also desire that the Ministry of External Affairs explore the possibility of recruiting eminent scholars into foreign service, from amongst those who complete their studies abroad on scholarship for higher studies”.
Within the ministry, officers from the IFS (B), the main feeder cadre, are allotted 22.5% of posts of IFS (A) through promotion. This had led to some bitterness among the younger batch of IFS officers, who had even filed a case with the Central Administrative Tribunal.
However, the committee made it clear that “promotional avenues for the feeder cadre should be further broadened for ensuring seamless career growth and as a means of tapping the full human resources potential available”.
Foreign language difficulties
Perhaps, the most unique aspect of Expansion Plan 2.0, in comparison to its current avatar, is the emphasis on expanding the number of local staff in Indian missions by 25%.
Jaishankar explained to the committee members that “as a broad thumb rule the cost [of a local employee] is one-fifth of what an India-based employee would cost”.
“We have made a proposal for 500 posts in different embassies. Just as a reference, at the moment the global number of local posts is about 2,200. So, this will be a fairly substantial increase. This is under submission to [the] finance [ministry]. It will take some time for us to see that this proposal is through…,” the foreign secretary submitted.
However, the committee also issued a cautionary note that “keeping in view the diplomatic sensitivities involved, the role of the local cadre should be confined to manning the service delivery arms of various missions/posts except in exceptional circumstances”.
One of the reasons provided by the MEA for increasing the number of local staff was that they would know the language already. In fact, the linguistic expertise of the IFS was the subject of rather extensive discussion in the hearings of the standing committee.
The final report expressed disappointment at the “dismal state of affairs” that only 569 officers – out of 770 – had proficiency in a foreign language. “It may easily be inferred that around 200 IFS officers are not equipped with any foreign language and the committee were disappointed by this dismal state of affairs,” the report said.
The foreign secretary admitted that language expertise was not an active consideration for postings, with only 35% of officers serving in their ‘language zones’. But, Jaishankar said, that was slowly changing.
“…I think that we are now consciously trying both at the ambassador-level and the below ambassador-level to align postings and deployments as much as possible to language skills. So, if I were to consider today recommending an ambassador to Senegal and I had two candidates, then I would go for the French-speaking candidate if I had that option.”
He hoped that within a year the “language alignment” in postings would have “gone up 35 to 50%”.
Calls for non-career ambassadors
The panel discussed an issue that would not have raised much joy in South Block, with members batting for more non-career ambassadors.
From 2011 to 2014, only one non-IFS officer each year has been posted as an ambassador; this includes two former foreign secretaries and retired air force and naval chiefs.
Jaishankar argued that the numbers have steadily shrunk as the “levels of interest” has fallen. “…if you are down to two people it is not something which happened in the last one or two years. It has really been a fairly steady trend. I would like to think the quality of the foreign service has improved and perhaps that is a reflection….’’
Despite this, the standing committee suggested that more “eminent persons who have excelled in the field of community affairs, diaspora issues, foreign policy, area studies, literature, journalism, etc. should be considered for appointments as ambassadors/high commissioners”.
It even recommended that the body that appoints ambassadors should have “representation of non-official experts as well”.
Senior IFS officers who spoke to The Wire said the suggestion to get more “non-career” ambassadors was not likely to get much traction.
Incidentally, the political leadership had apparently assured the MEA, just after Jaishankar took over as foreign secretary, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not want outsiders as ambassadors, sources said.
Despite the assurance, senior MEA officials pointed out that political appointees only preferred more glamorous locations. “It won’t work because only IFS officers can serve in such difficult conditions without any support or resources,” said a current Indian envoy posted in a developing country.