Samir in The Times of India: A billion people, 710 diplomats, 2010

by TOI Crest
August 7, 2010
in: Times of India 

One of the reasons for India’s stop and go response to the multi-dimensional diplomatic challenges it faces is a severe shortage of human resources for simultaneous deployment. Given its size and the quantum leap in its engagement with the world, India’s diplomatic strength falls woefully short of its requirements and compares unfavourably even with countries like Japan and Brazil.

A headcount in 2008 revealed that India had 710 diplomats. Compare this with Japan’s 5,400 and Brazil’s 1,200 and we get a sense of how hard-pressed the foreign office is. Big global players like the US and China invest even more in manpower. The US has a regular diplomatic strength of 6,500 officers plus it draws in some 5,000 experts on short-term contracts. China’s foreign office has 6,000 diplomats.The government’s response has been typically slow and smallminded. It started discussing the problem some time in 2005. In 2006, the then foreign secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon, was tasked with preparing an expansion plan. But it was not till 2008 that the union cabinet approved the plan.

But look at what it approved. It sanctioned an increase of 310 Grade-I officers over a period of ten years. This means that by 2018, India will still have just 1,020 diplomats. Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) officials agree that this number will fall far short of requirements if India’s international profile continues to grow at the current pace.

Ironically, even this slow rate of expansion is going nowhere. New recruits will take at least 15 years to grow into responsible, decisionmaking positions. In the meantime, MEA is searching for middle-rung officials from other ministries who can come on short-term deputation to fill the gaps. In the past two years, the ministry has managed to rope in only half a dozen such officers because all other departments are equally short-staffed at this level.

“These small numbers cannot take care of the large deficit we have if we want to play a bigger role globally ,” said a senior MEA official. Unfortunately, expert consultants are also proving elusive. Observer Research Foundation analyst Samir Saran says that although India boasts of around 150 think tanks, most of them are “retirement homes” and have few original ideas to offer the government. “Even our universities don’t have departments for modern Indian studies. How can we develop a sense of what India’s place is in the emerging world?” he asks.

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