Look through the wanted ads in any Indian newspaper and you will see that not much has changed in over 40 years.
The big private companies continue to advertise various job opportunities in colourful language that is designed to attract the best candidates. The big public sector job postings are almost always dull, with lots of rules and deadlines; and they are particularly infamous for imposing age limits on applicants.
India’s constitution prohibits discrimination against people based on race, religion or gender. But somehow, we have empowered our public institutions to reject millions of otherwise qualified and able people based on the definition of a non-behavioural class — age.
For plum government jobs, the age discrimination starts a step earlier. The Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) exam has an arbitrary age limit of 32 years. The Commission, established under Article 320 of the Constitution, has broad powers to set rules for selecting individuals to various senior positions within the government.
In public sector recruitment some age restrictions are, for sure, necessary. The Indian Armed Forces require young and physically fit soldiers to protect our borders. Allowing the Indian Army to staff front line troops who are significantly older (and more frail) than enemy forces can have serious consequences for the nation’s defence.
But a desk job as a civil service officer calls for no specialised physical abilities; if anything, these positions require superior mental competence, ability, and wisdom - traits that are more associated with older individuals. So bizarre are our UPSC rules that an entrepreneur who has built and sold companies is considered unfit to serve as a Secretary in government only because he is deemed to be too old.
This does not make sense.
Government agencies at all levels benefit enormously from lateral induction — when people from outside the government are brought into it to serve. One of the best examples of this was in the 1980s when Sam Pitroda, an Indian-born engineer who was trained in the US returned to India to become Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s adviser in telecommunications. Under Pitroda’s leadership, the government invested in establishing an elite organisation C-Dot, the Centre for Development of Telematics, which ushered in the then ubiquitous STD/ISD network nationwide. The advent of mobile phones in the last 15 years has relegated these STD booths to history, but for nearly two decades, the STD/ISD infrastructure was what allowed Indians of all walks of life to make inexpensive calls across the country and around the world.
Under UPSC rules, Pitroda was too old to take the UPSC exam and become an official civil servant in the country’s telecommunications ministry.
Some age limit rules are bizarre. The Indian Institute of Science, a premier research institution dating back to its founder JRD Tata, prohibits anyone above the age of 35 from applying for a faculty role. Many US-trained PhDs who have returned to India and are eager to work at the Institute are shut out because of that one rule — they are too old.
Until recently, one had to be under the age of 30 to sign up for the LLB course. It is preposterous that we permit places of learning to reject students based on their age. In March 2015, the Supreme Court thankfully lifted this restriction.
Forty years ago, age limits were in vogue because of a Soviet-style approach to solving unemployment problems. There were only so many jobs available, and by eliminating candidates based on their age, the remaining qualified pool of applicants had a better shot at those positions. Requiring people to retire at age 58 — and in many cases, extending voluntary retirement packages to people as young as 50 — was also a socialistic response to creating jobs.
But India has come a long way from these years. People are living longer and more eager to work past the mandatory retirement age. GDP growth is upwards of 7 per cent and in many hot industries, there are more jobs than qualified people available. Eliminating outstanding individuals based on an arbitrary factor such as age is not only silly, it is blatantly discriminatory.
Unfortunately our political class is unlikely to act on this issue anytime soon. Why should they? There are no age limits at all in the world of politics — we routinely have octogenarians serve in public office; take the likes of Deve Gowda, LK Advani, Murali Manohar Joshi, Motilal Vora and M Karunanidhi — who is 92 years old — for example.