Public Service

Posted: November 3, 2010 in Misc.
Tags: , , , ,

It all started with that thought about people doing RAB for charity. Since they allow participants to choose a charity of their choice, I thought of Vinayak’s work in Calcutta with Parivaar. It works in education, an area close to my heart, with extremely vulnerable children who would not have any chance of it otherwise. More importantly, I thought of it because it works in the vicinity of the B-school I graduated from.

While we gain so much from the 2 years we spend in the area, not just inside the classroom, there is hardly anything long-term that we give to the area other than a few low level jobs and a few of our rupees from conspicuous consumption. We just spend our two years, studying & partying, and then after one final party, leave the land for a long Tim. Forever, in most cases.

Vinayak chose to stay back. He decided to give back to the area. The area probably needed him. We, though we don’t realise it, needed it even more. What vinayak is doing there is not just adding to his good will, but also to that of the school and, by association, the alumni’s. That’s us. That’s me.

We need him because there are a few functions in our society that require the skill & dedication of our best but because of being public goods, are responsibility if none. What Vinayak is doing back in Cal is required of all of us – to give something back to the area in the same way we gained from it. Perhaps, not in the same magnitude or manner but some nonetheless.

While on this thought process, I recognised another similar problem in our country – the severe lack of officers in the armed forces. A combination of tradition, honour, poverty and social security have ensured that our armed forces continue to recieve acceptable numbers of soldiers. However, the evolution of middle class cultures across the country accompanied by earning opportunities in the private sector have ensured such a weakening of those forces that the flow into officer cadre of our armless forces is down to a trickle.

Same as in our b-school scenario, here too the armed services are a public good that serve the whole society. However, as an individual, I have no responsibility whatsoever to serve them. No, paying my taxes doesn’t count.

Now, the world has had a solution for a problem like this. It is controversial and it is called Compulsory Civil/Military Service. It’s also called by a name with worse connotations – conscription. The idea is to get young, able people to compulsorily serve a small, pre-defined number of years working on exactly the kind of public services that the society needs but the individual doesn’t wish to provide.

It’s not a new idea, nor an outdated one. Even today, there’s a large number of countries around the world with Compulsory Service (see map). Israel and Germany are two leading examples. Israel has compulsory military service for all non-Arab Israeli men & women (with exceptions) over the age of 18 for the duration of 3 & 2 years, respectively. Germany has compulsory conscription for all males above the age of 17 for a duration of 6 months with an optional voluntary extension to 23 months. More importantly, Germany also provides the conscripts an option to opt out of the military service on conscientious grounds (see here). In that case, they have to spend the compulsory national service in social works. Yes, the kind of work that Vinayak is doing.

So, what I’m suggesting is on the lines of what was partly debated in the movie ‘Lambs for Lions‘. Have a compulsory national service for every single youth in our country. Give them some options, say, 2 years in the military versus 1 year in military service and 2 years in social/government sector.

The benefits are numerous. Off the top of my head:

  1. Out of the many folks passing through the military service, a small percentage may decide to stay back and fill in some of that gap in our armed forces’ officer numbers.
  2. Even for the majority who do not opt for extended military service, the time spent will bring a greater sense of discipline and respect towards the armed forces.
  3. The government sector will also benefit from the infusion of some young blood. The idealism of youth will hopefully temper  the widespread corruption. Specially since the short term of their service will make these youth relatively immune to pressures of the corrupt ‘system’.
  4. The social services sector too will benefit from an infusion of young blood with new ideas and energy.
  5. Additionally, working in this sector will possibly expose youth from all classes & regions to struggles of the social sector. Hopefully, this shall make them a bit more receptive to the ideas of and a bit more giving to the pockets of these social sector enterprises.
  6. Finally, the biggest benefit of a compulsory national service may be in the form of exposure & understanding that may develop between youth from across the country, classes and religions working together on ventures of equal benefit to all. In a country being torn apart on those divisions, such understanding and tolerance  is something we dearly need. Additional benefit may be from the ideas and experiences that these youth will take back to the broader society at end of their national service informing our vast superstitious, conservative, ill-experiences masses about the reality of service in the armed forces, the social sector and the government service.

Another bit is the hope. The hope that while the many going in for compulsory national service may not have the motivation and energy of a Vinayak Lohani, under the initiative and leadership of people like him they can spread the good work farther and faster.

Began this post yesterday evening. Had to take breaks multiple times and it reflects in the length and round-about nature of the post. I think I shall take a break now and end it here. The broad idea that I wanted to share is already up there (as well as how it came around to me). Another unfinished post. Yet, it will not remain a draft.

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P.S.: As Tyler Cowen keeps stressing, there are markets in everything. And soon enough a black market will appear providing people opt-outs from the national service. Instead of letting it be another source of corruption, I suggest making it legal and making it expensive. Expensive enough so only the very richest may be able to afford it. Other than that, when most of a similar age population goes for service, the few who don’t will soon start to be identified as outliers – as the ones who didn’t share that experience.


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