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Supremacy over Efficiency: A tale of Civil Services

It was not until 1862 when neither a single Indian joined the Indian civil services rooted in during the British rule back in 1855. Though, the highly prestigious civil services wasn’t a piece of cake, except for members of affluent families. Their highly groomed sons could succeed after taking a sea-sickening voyage to London along with bearing boarding and lodging expenses. Beside this, Hindus had been engulfed in their superstitious beliefs of traveling across the ocean as a bad omen until the civil services became an all-white affair. But fortunately, Satyendranath Tagore stood first amongst the brown skinned to qualify ICS in 1863 and served in the Bombay presidency cadre for more than 30 years of his service. With each passing year, there was an increase in the percentage of Indians appearing for the exam with an aspiration of elevating their social stature pushed them to mortgage their assets against the hefty loan, when for the first time well-known philanthropist JN Tata had offered a conditional scholarship to study abroad only, if they were to appear for the ICS exam in London. This exam continued to take place in London until 1922 onwards. It was held in both London and Allahabad with an age limit of no more than 24 years when the last exam was held in 1943 and no fixed retirement age for any ICS officer. The ICS exam wasn’t just meant to recruit people for the administrative services, but it is worth mentioning that more than 50 percent of a judgeship in the state high court was through this exam and the rest were elevated from the high court bar. An ICS officer could only aspire for the highest post of a governorship in any of the 11 provinces, under the British dominion.

On the contrary in Pakistan, the British-inherited civil services steel frame was carried to ensure each civil servant should serve the public to justify where they have been positioned. In the beginning, civil services went well. It was only tasked to collect land revenue taxes and maintain the law and order situation, like the ICS officers. These highest echelons of power had a grip over the administrative machinery and a knowledge of law gave them an edge to reign over their arena, but their authority and mystique never transcended their responsibilities and moral authority. Their mastery in directions was proven in the testing times they had sailed through efficiently.

However, in the later ages, Pakistan’s civil services structure wasn’t molded to adapt to the changing circumstances of a newly born country. Thus, post-independence the evolution of a civil servant to a “bureaucrat” has made it difficult for an ordinary citizen to interact with their absolute administrator and their unresponsive attitude to address people’s concern is yet to clamp down. Apart from the central services, another parallel set of administration Provincial Management Services PMS previously known PCS is running within the province is as different as chalk and the cheese. Though, the Punjab civil services was a post-independence affair, made up of two cadres, the Punjab Secretariat Service (PSS) and Punjab Civil Service Executive (PCS) prior fusing into one during the devolution process in 2001. Thus, later PMS services rules came into being and were promulgated in 2004. The irony is that the central and provincial civil bureaucracies aren’t only a far apart worlds, but have a completely different approach to governance. Despite the contrast, both have continued functioning with “infinite powers” had remained unchecked were in the best interest of totalitarian regimes to the democratic rulers we have a throne to date. As were depicted in the last PML-N government in Punjab and other provinces, a chief minister preferred to operate through select bureaucrats, who swear personal loyalty to him rather than democracy or their oath to serve the country Nonetheless, this personal choose and pick formula doesn’t work in the centre, after the PM Imran Khan has been pounded with the dual-disaster of rocketing gas prices and hikes in the dollar exchange rate, which has crippled our economy. It may sound like a cliché, but it’s never too early nor too late since PM Khan has experienced the maneuvering of highly tactful executives of the last government in federal have muddled with their respective institutions. By the time the new PM took office, he could have and should have brought urgent structural reforms in Pakistan’s conventional civil services structure. The unprecedented mandate he had with him and the voter’s faith in his promises to cleanse Pakistan’s governance, as never done before has to materialise.

By the time the new PM took office, he could have and should have brought urgent structural reforms in Pakistan’s conventional civil services structure

But why did Khan roll up his sleeves to overhaul the bureaucracy? The reply is quite explicit: he needed a set of people who work as “government servants” to address public grievances. The consistent laments of the downtrodden have echoed in Pakistan’s “kacharis”, an administrative hub of district offices. This is a depraved place to visit even once in one’s life, until it continues for ages. Each day seems to bring more despondency amongst the people, who adjoin to form an infinite chain awaiting outside the fortified offices to get their issues resolved. This is not a mere generalisation: I can cite many instances to corroborate my observation where I have observed the ineffectiveness and dependency of the administrative machinery has nearly halted due process and caused an immense loss for the people to endure. I had a chance to visit the offices of Assistant Commissioner AC, District Police Officer DPO and other civil services officer in three of central Punjab’s districts where I observed the much trumpet PM’s austerity remained a paper bill for the government office, since no office-bearers were following the new office hours of 9 am- 5 pm, but preferred to continue their past norm of coming late on the pretext of a surprise visits to unscheduled official meetings in a neighboring district. An exception to their routine can be that they may arrive early and leave at late hours with no destitute permitted to step in to have his issue redressed, except those who are the exclusive guests honored to enjoy Hi-tea in the elegant offices with blinds dropped down to block peeps. In addition, the higher officials in the provincial secretariats and the ministries are solely dependent on their section officers because neither have a grip over law nor acquainted with the procedures and their duties. It won’t be a different scenario, if superintendent and assistants are abolished at the divisional level and head clerks in the districts. The four federating units will come to a standstill.

Furthermore, the judicial system isn’t o par with civil services. Where I have seen judges presiding over court proceedings on time till late hours to lessen their backlog cases, though their lower staff is often seen retaliating and hindering their efficiency, however this fourth pillar of the state has continued functioning quite efficiently and have had chances to supplement its performance, if bars and benches resolve their differences.

Consequently, if we agree that the highly competitive exam for these services catches the best candidates for these jobs, we need to scrutinize what happens thereafter. Despite, flowing through common trainings to specialized training programme with fields attachments may help them to overview their realm, however they lack a basic understanding of the ground level intricacies makes them handicap. These young officers are thrown into a convoluted system marred with incompetencies, political interferences and unscrupulous senior drives them to become corrupt and simply lazy for these jobs. It’s simply to blame every government, which is equally guilty of supporting their political parties to bully civil servants and pushing them for the cash-partnerships. It’s high time for PM Khan to take a quick action to execute civil services reforms draft, otherwise, it will be tabled yet again with no results as in past.

The writer is a freelance contributor

Published in Daily Times, March 22nd 2019.