In December, Sunil James of the merchant navy was released after five months in jail in Togo. The 31-year-old captain had docked in the tiny African nation to report an attempted act of piracy but ended up in prison himself. India does not have an embassy in Togo and had to work through its honorary consul to free the sailor.

It was just one instance of India’s increasing need to have a far-reaching foreign ministry. But even as many more Indians travel the world (12 million in 2013 alone) and its businessmen strike deals in faraway countries (the country exported capital goods valued at $129 billion in  2012-’13), India’s Ministry of External Affairs is unable to provide them the services they need to help them during emergencies and to help win commercial deals.

One of the biggest challenges the Indian Foreign Service faces is its tiny size relative to the population it represents. While India has only 800 Foreign Service officers, Brazil has 1,200 and China around 4,000. The strength of the corps is now just above that of Singapore smaller than that of Switzerland.

“Yes, we definitely would like to add more officers,” said Syed Akbaruddin, joint secretary (XP) and spokesperson for the MEA.

He said that since the 1990s the IFS had doubled our intake to 36 officers every year from 12-15 in 1990s. Despite this, the ministry only employs 1,800 people: in addition to IFS officers, there are about 1,000 other bureaucrats on deputation from other services such as defence and revenue, interpreters and translators, and consultants from think tanks.

The problem with increasing the number of IFS recruits, Akbaruddin said, is that it would destroy the chances for advancement that makes the service attractive in the first place. “If you recruit large numbers at the bottom of the pyramid, that career path is no longer clear,” he said.

To get around this, the MEA is looking to outsource a lot of work instead of adding extra personnel to its already strained budgets. Pressure has also been increasing by India’s business lobbies for MEA to expand its base and hire specialised talents in order for Indian companies to win bids abroad.

“We have now started taking consultants under the normal Government of India guidelines which allows them to take up projects over a certain period of time,” said Akbaruddin. “We have also started getting in officers with specific expertise from other governmental departments. However, the problem is that other departments are dealing with shortages in staff as well.”

In May 2013, for instance, the MEA drafted 30 engineers and professionals from other government departments to join a project to rebuild homes in Sri Lanka that were destroyed during the civil war there. However, such positions are only open to people already employed by government services. For workers from the private section to be used on such projects, the rules need to be further liberalised.

Some experts have also suggested that the Foreign Ministry should stop hiring personnel through the civil service examinations and set up an independent process, which should include direct selection from universities to gather the best people for the challenges of global diplomacy.

Akbaruddin said that this was already being done. “We now have increasingly specialised fields within the foreign ministry,” he said. “Interpreters, experts in international law, climate change and so on are now part of our structure”, though these employees are not diplomats.

The MEA is now looking to increase its interaction with external agencies, such as think tanks, to strengthen its capabilities with regard to climate change, international business regulations and a host of other subjects.

However, many of the changes the MEA is trying to orchestrate have been slowed by budgetary problems. According to officials, MEA developmental projects abroad are now stalling to a halt due to a financial crunch. Though the ministry’s budgets have grown more than 150% over the decade to Rs 11,719 crores in 2013-’14, the increase has not matched the MEA’s requests.

“Budgetary issues will always be the factor which will hold the Foreign Ministry back,” said Akbaruddin. “We cannot even get payments at the moment for domestic servants. The issue has been moving between us and the Finance Ministry for around nine months to ensure that domestic servants will be treated as government employees. The more you divorce us from funding the less effective we will be.”