The myth of the ‘commoners’ – Ayesha Siddiqa

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A recently published article in these pages on June 20, by a civil servant Khurshid Ahmed Khan Marwat, reminded me of my own experience with the bureaucracy.

In 1992, as a young officer I remember meeting a then new probationary officer. He wanted to know about potential good postings in our department. In no time it became obvious he was looking for money-making opportunities and a boss that wouldn’t care so much about discipline.

I was amazed at his fearlessness at expressing his real intention behind joining the state bureaucracy. My batch of 127 officers was generally silent about their intent, which was not always to make money, but certainly no one was there to serve the hapless people.

We had a large batch of qualified doctors, some who had left jobs with reasonable salaries to receive Rs2800 as starting salary, and that too while raising a family. Even at the CSA, it was almost possible to tell those that were there to make a fortune, though people were less blatant about it. There were those who had joined because they were angry – the humiliation of being qualified doctors and engineers yet made to wait at the doors of bureaucrats to get simple things done had driven them to attain the same power that could be used to help or disgrace and crush the powerless.

For many others, the civil service brought immediate social mobility which was expressed through better valuation in the marriage market. It is not odd to see powerful political, business, land owning and now even military families either get their children into the civil service or have them marry into it.

Personally, I joined on the advice of my mother, who was worried about my survival in a brutal landowning environment. I qualified the same year as she died and realized the worth of her plan for me. I had become part of a family that would render protection, irrespective of my career path. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s civil service reforms turned the extended state bureaucracy into an extended family. Of course, you are taken care of and to the extent that you contribute to the game of power you are groomed to play. The one month of ‘military attachment’ added to the nine-month training is to build familiarization with the other bureaucracy.

However, Bhutto’s main aim behind his good civil service reforms that sadly didn’t get implemented was to break down the power of the CSP cadre, the predecessor of the district management group (DMG). And it was not only that he didn’t achieve the objective, the primary flaw of the civil service remains a design that revolves around the power of the DMG versus the police, both with ample capacity to blatantly demonstrate power. Several civil service reforms have failed to bring any substantive change.

Pakistan’s bureaucracy is fairly well-qualified and has, since the 1960s, benefitted from foreign education trips to the US, UK and Europe. However, degrees have not brought intellectual prowess or greater professionalism. The ‘commoners,’ as civil servants are called on the basis of their common training programme at the CSA, are guided by socio-political and socioeconomic instincts. Though financial services like Income Tax and Customs & Excise are highly technical, these along with the Military Land & Cantonment (MLC) group have acquired significance due to their perceived ability at rent-seeking.

Not surprisingly, during the mid or late 1990s some officers from the foreign service, who went on deputation to the income tax department, did not wish to return. A service group that does not help with the thana, kacheri and patwarkhana or can’t even help secure a foreign visa is of little value, especially for candidates from the rural/small town middle class that have increasingly joined the services.

There is not even the fascination of being able to add to the foreign policy of the country, which is not a task that the foreign officer performs. And then, who even bothers about services like information, audit & accounts, railways, postal & commerce and trade?

The civil bureaucracies of the Subcontinent are a British colonial design that have evolved subject to the changing domestic compulsions and political context of their respective states. Though the relative power of the civil service in different states varies, it remains significant due to the dependence of the power centers on this human machinery needed to run the state.

But reading Philip Woodruff’s two-volume ‘The Men Who Ruled India’, one realizes the intellectual prowess, sense of adventurism and Christian missionary zeal that went into creating the ‘founders’ of modern India. The next generation of ‘guardians’ worked hard to produce the laws and norms required to govern the ‘natives’ cohesively. They were brutal and accommodative, read, imagined and explored because the empire depended upon them.

While the British laws mostly persist and the attitude towards the ‘natives’ remains the same, the intellectual quality of the civil servant has changed. I remember at the CSA anyone caught reading newspapers every day or a book was seen as a sure sign of the person retaking the exams to get into service with more power. While books are read during training at the CSA or other higher training institutions, there is rarely the intellectual engagement required to sharpen the mind.

Sadly, Pakistan’s bureaucracy has not developed thinkers. Though one cannot forget men like Mukhtar Masood and Sheikh Manzoor Elahi, it’s rare to come across meaningful books on administration, politics or even foreign policy written by former bureaucrats.

Again, the problem is not with individual bureaucrats but a socio-political system that doesn’t appreciate deep thinking. After the departure of Gen (r) Atiqur Rehman, who was probably the best chairman of the FPSC, many that followed brought the quality down. Not known for high intellectual capacity, Admiral (r) Mohammad Sharif appointed by Gen Ziaul Haq needs special mention in the category of bringing the quality down. Interviews were conducted like Neelam Ghar – asking candidates to recite the Dua-e-qunoot or questions from basic general science.

Stepping out of the CSA most of the passion and idealism, if some young officers still have it, is sapped out within no time, especially when young officers confront the reality of surviving in a system that in itself is a byproduct of decades of political instability. At the end of the day, a lot depends on how you work the system rather than what you add for public good.

The writer is currently a research associate at SOAS, London.

Twitter: @iamthedrifter