Saturday, June 18, 2011

The OSD cadre in civil bureaucracy

The Independent, Saturday 18th June, 2011
AS I SEE IT column
M. Serajul Islam

Recently I had an interesting conversation with an OSD of the Government. I knew what is happening in the civil bureaucracy but I was not aware that it was anything like he described. We all know that one of the election issues that the ruling party put before the voter was the extent of politicization of the civil bureaucracy under the BNP Government. But the extent of politicization under the present government that this officer described is unbelievable.

I have also been reading the post-budget comments of leading citizens. They have all given us reasons to worry about our future. In fact, the Finance Minister himself has said that the over-ambitious budget the Government has announced will bear the desired results based on its ability to deliver at the micro level. He has also said that political stability will be a crucial factor in determining the desired results outlined in the budget.

The institution whose role is critical to the way the budget shapes is the civil bureaucracy. In any knowledgeable discussion these days, the civil bureaucracy is described as a sinking institution. By the start of this term of the ruling party, the officers who were recruited in the Pakistan era had all retired. As a consequence, leadership of the civil bureaucracy was weakened considerably.

The explanation for this is a simple one. The best university graduates who entered the civil bureaucracy in Pakistan times avoided it after our independence. A few bright graduates nevertheless entered the civil bureaucracy. However, as an institution, the difference in quality and ability between officers of the earlier era and those leading now is palpably evident. When this was the state of affairs with the bureaucracy, the ruling party decided to leave out from the cabinet political leaders who were in the AL cabinet in 1996-2001 and in their place, brought in new and inexperienced faces.

Key Ministries of Home and Foreign Affairs have been given to women, both first timers in the cabinet. Thus the second administration of Sheikh Hasina started with a very bad mix for successful governance; an inexperienced cabinet and a very weak bureaucracy. The Prime Minister herself expressed her frustration with her cabinet colleagues and publicly questioned their ability.

In these contexts, what this OSD revealed to me is nerve wracking indeed. He said that after this government came to power, it has systematically sorted out the officers on the basis of loyalty to the ruling party. Accordingly, the officers have been categorized into those whose loyalty is unquestioned. Then there are those who have been branded as disloyal or loyal to the opposition. There is a third group who are in between; who are not considered disloyal but whose loyalty to the ruling party is also not established beyond doubt.

The pro-AL loyalists are of course ruling the roost. They are eating the cake and the icing too! Those whose loyalty was in doubt have either been sent on retirement or have been sorted out in various other ways. The OSD who led me to write this piece is in a group who could not prove their loyalty or those on witch hunt to seek out opposition elements in the bureaucracy could not link them to the opposition. His group consists of over 200 officers of level of Deputy Secretary, 70 Joint Secretaries, and a good Additional Secretaries and Secretaries! If this figure of officers made OSD is not startling enough, I am not sure what would be. These officers have no office or responsibility and under are required to go daily to the Establishment Division to sign a register. Out of pity for this unfortunate group, the Establishment Division has allowed them to sign the register at interval of 10 days.

Thus an already weak bureaucracy has been divided and a very large number of officers are paid salaries but not allowed to work. It does not need common sense to suggest that such a move has weakened the bureaucracy further. This is not even politicization of the bureaucracy; this is worse. What is going to happen if the opposition were to return to power? Can a bureaucracy politicized in such a manner and working half strength deliver the high objectives of the budget and government where the political leadership is weak?

With all respect to the Prime Minister whose wisdom is hardly in doubt, it does not need a crystal ball to predict that the Government will find it difficult if not impossible to deliver. The CPD that has attained credibility in the country and aboard has predicted that the Government will not be able to achieve the growth rate it has predicted in the budget. Leading economists of the country have also likewise made pessimistic predictions. The FM’s rather inexplicable outbursts against the CPD are one of nervousness about the Government’s ability to deliver.

Our bureaucracy has been based on political neutrality on traditions of the British bureaucracy. Next door India has benefitted immensely from a politically neutral bureaucracy by following the same British traditions as we have. In fact, Pandit Nehru turned to the ICS officers who served the British raj to build an independent India. They returned that trust by helping build the India Pandit Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and others had visualized for an independent India.

We can destroy that fundamental basis of our bureaucracy, namely its political neutrality, only at our peril. A democratic government simply cannot have its civil bureaucracy totally subservient to the political party where that party as the ruling one does not even have a simple majority on votes cast in its favour or be manned by its political activists. This Government must focus seriously to bring the civil bureaucracy back on rails. Otherwise it will derail the Government. In fact, the derailment process is very visible and it is unbelievable that the Government is silent about it.

The OSD predicted that hell would be let loose in the civil bureaucracy when a change of government takes place for that is the direction in which the present government is pushing the once respected and vaunted bureaucracy. It is not even helping the cause of the ruling party because the bureaucrats are serving their own interests in the name of the party and depriving the benefits of governance to those who they believe do not support the ruling party.

Thus instead of building an efficient civil service based on ability and merit, the present government it is helping build a bureaucracy based on sycophancy. More importantly, it is pushing a significant part of the members of the bureaucracy into a corner as members of the OSD cadre! All aside, can any country afford it , least of all an impoverished country like Bangladesh that at full strength still is still well short of the desired number of bureaucrats to implement the responsibilities and objectives of the government?

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan

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