The government of Kerala has surreptitiously offered a small extension of service to its employees by pushing the date of retirement to the last day of the financial year in which they attain the age of superannuation.
Kerala has the highest life expectancy in the country. Ironically, it also has the lowest retirement age.
At the time of independence, the retirement age of government employees was 55 years throughout the country. That was enough to assure them a reasonably long working period since life expectancy at that time was only 32 years.
Thanks to the success of various governmental and non-governmental programmes, over the last six decades infant mortality rate in the state dropped dramatically and public health improved significantly.
Today, life expectancy in the state is higher than in the rest of the country.
At the time of the 2001 census, life expectancy at birth in Kerala was at 71.7 years for males and 75.0 years for females as against 64.1 years for males and 65.4 years for females in the country as a whole.
In 1966, when Kerala was under President's rule, the state government, taking note of the rising longevity, raised the age of retirement of government employees to 58 years.
A coalition government, headed by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), which came to power the following year, reduced it to 55 years again. This was done to create immediate vacancies in the government and facilitate fresh recruitment.
Quite naturally youths welcomed the step. Since then the governments at the Centre and in the other states have raised the retirement age to 58 or even 60 years.
Nowhere is it below 58 years. Central government employees now retire at 60. In Assam and Uttar Pradesh, too, the retirement age is 60 years.
School teachers in Kerala, like government employees, retire at 55. The retirement age of teachers in Madhya Pradesh is 62 years, which is higher than that of government employees.
No government in Kerala has had the courage to increase the retirement age since the move will be unpopular with young jobseekers. The state suffers a double loss on this account.
On the one hand, the state incurs a huge expenditure by way of pension payments to employees for long periods. On the other, it loses the services of persons who have work experience and are physically and mentally fit to work for several years more.
Even government doctors retire at 55 in Kerala. This has proved beneficial to the private medical colleges and hospitals that have sprung up in the state in recent years.
These institutions are able to find their requirement of doctors and teachers from among the recently retired. Pension and salary payments account for about 75% of the Kerala government's non-plan expenditure.
In the past 10 years, government employees' salary payments have risen from Rs22.16 billion to Rs80.55 billion a year and pension payments from Rs7.53 billion to Rs40.54 billion a year.
Early this year, a government-appointed public expenditure review committee proposed that the retirement age of government employees and teachers be raised from 55 to 58 years immediately and to 60 years later on.
It said this would release a significant part of the government revenue for productive use. It pointed out that often the government paid pension to retiring employees for 25 to 30 years. It was not good for healthy persons to receive payment without doing any work.
Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan immediately shot down the proposal. Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said, "No political party has come forward to support the demand for a higher retirement age."
Some organisations of government employees have called for upward revision of the retirement age. However, no political party backs the demand.
The Democratic Youth Federation of India, the CPI-M's youth wing, opposes the demand on the ground that it will restrict employment opportunities.
There are 4.26 million jobseekers on the live registers of the employment exchanges in the state. Of them, 2.31 million are women. The government's annual intake of 18,000 can make little difference to joblessness of this magnitude.
The move to shift the retirement date of employees from their dates of birth to the last day of the financial year was announced by Finance Minister TM Thomas Isaac in this year's budget speech. To mollify the youth, he has said some 12,000 government jobs will still be on offer this year.