India's socialist gravy train, the massive public bureaucracy that has fed, clothed and housed millions of government employees since independence, is running out of steam.
Consider, for example, ticket conductor S. M. Mahule, a 33-year veteran of the federal railway service, who exudes fatigue as he plods between passenger cars rumbling across central India.
Irregular blood pressure kept Mahule off the rails for two months last year, and he plans another extended leave soon. In the public sector, illness is no problem. Mahule said he receives 45 days of paid vacation, a dozen government holidays and up to 120 sick days each year.
"Most of our employees, they are sick," he said wryly.
So is the government that employs them. An unprecedented fiscal crisis on the subcontinent is highlighting the sorry condition of India's public sector, where many workers in guaranteed jobs seem proud to elevate organized inactivity to an art form.
During the 1988-89 fiscal year, the last for which complete statistics are available, 101 of the country's 222 largest nationalized companies lost money, contributing to a federal deficit five times larger in relative terms than the one in the United States, a ballooning external debt and a severe foreign exchange crunch.
From railways to rubber, tea to tourism, sprawling state-owned enterprises in dozens of industries are under new pressure to cut costs, raise profits and stem the tide of red ink. For the first time since independence in 1947, even some nominally socialist politicians are talking about previously taboo ideas, such as labor-force discipline and privatization as Parliament tackles a projected $7.7-billion federal deficit.
Despite deepening fiscal problems, there is widespread reluctance to shake up the bureaucracy. Paradoxically, India's vast public sector is seen not only as a cause of national crisis, but as a bedrock of social stability.
The huge federal work force--1.6 million in the railway service alone--wields formidable political power. Indian courts continue to uphold laws that make it virtually impossible to fire a public worker, even if suspected of committing a crime. The bureaucracy has also become the main laboratory for experiments in affirmative action.
Challenging the socialist orthodoxy is a business-minded middle class that rose to influence during the 1980s and whose members are demanding freedom from the government clerks and functionaries who regulate many aspects of their lives.
A 36-hour ride aboard the G. T. Express, which shuttles along the spine of India's British-built administrative infrastructure between New Delhi in the north and Madras in the south, offers a dusty window on the bureaucracy and the forces of change pressing against it.
At the head of the train is the engineer, H. N. Sharma, a neatly coifed advocate of public service and middle-class virtue who waves enthusiastically to villagers he passes along the way. With his son ensconced in a railway-built school, his wife at home in a railway-built house and his pension gathering interest in a state-owned bank, Sharma's principal lament is that India's younger generation does not seem to regard government service with adequate respect.
The young today, he argued, "are too busy making money." But what is wrong with that? "Money is a criterion of success, no doubt," he said. "But side by side, you've got to see your reputation."
Behind him in an air-conditioned coach is electronics engineer N. Ramesh, 25, who sneers at what he sees as the lazy piety of government workers. Outlining his plan to start a computer company, Ramesh said that despite prodding from parents to join the bureaucracy, his generation is determined "to go on their own. They want to work, they want to make a go of it, they don't want to sit idle in government."
Such talk is unsettling to many of the railway service workers on the train, some of whom have used their government jobs to raise their families from crushing poverty and across caste barriers. They fear that talk of efficiency and privatization means that their upward social progress will halt.
Without socialism, asked conductor Mahule, what would happen to the tens of millions of Indians who lack the skills and talent to earn a comfortable living in the private sector? His son, for example, is searching desperately for federal employment. "He's not so much brilliant or extraordinary. He is an ordinary boy. That is why he wants a government job."