‘I have a dream’

June 12, 2016


The writer is a former civil servant.
The writer is a former civil servant.

THE Civil Services Academy Alumni forum, an informal organisation of serving and former members of Pakistan’s civil superior services, is often a place to discuss government policies and governance.

I assumed that the 2016-17 budget would provide ample opportunity for fruitful discussions but, post-announcement, only one thing was discussed at length; the meagre salaries of civil servants and a mere 10pc increase in them. Nothing else in the budget caught the fancy of this so-called cream of the crop.

I do not blame them for this. Their concerns about salaries are justified, given that parliamentarians, meanwhile, will be getting a huge pay raise, despite the fact that almost all of them have multiple sources of income.

Civil servants are neither allowed to run private businesses, nor do they have the time to do so because of the nature of their jobs. Railways run round the clock, as do policing and district management. Information groups do not wait for the next day’s office timings to issue a response or press release on impending matters; the Foreign Office must work across different time zones.

The younger lot is getting frustrated; as many as 28 officers have resigned from the office management group in the past five years. This rate of attrition — after studying for and passing the gruelling CSS exam — is alarmingly high. The salaries are too low and the work conditions abysmal. All their dreams of serving the public are soon lost amidst the musty heaps of files, which are a permanent feature of their offices.

Hopes of serving the public are soon lost amidst musty files.

Senior officers — BPS-20 and above — do not care about the work conditions of the younger officers because most of them have become sadistic after dragging their feet in the same environment, for over 20 years, before they achieve seniority. They consider a better work environment as a perk which should only be enjoyed by senior-most officers. After all, what good would it be for a junior officer to get promoted, only to enter the boss’s room and feel no difference in conditions? The salaries at higher levels are better but, more importantly, they are more resourceful — greater authority brings greater leverage in order to supplement their incomes.

With all due respect to Martin Luther King Jr, I also have a dream.

I have a dream that a Pakistani passport cannot be sold by foreign service officials for a few hundred dollars; I have a dream that custom officials cannot classify sophisticated machinery as scrap to avoid custom duty; I have a dream that income tax officials do not let people get away with under-invoicing; I have a dream that millions of rupees do not vanish into thin air in scams operated through Pakistan Post.

I have a dream that police officers do not overlook injustice perpetuated by the powerful to curry favour at the cost of victims; I have a dream that district administrators do not use front men to award maintenance contracts at inflated costs; I have a dream that goods such as betel leaf are not smuggled from India via Samjhota Express; I have a dream that civil servants will not pull strings to win prized postings.

Most of all, I have a dream that service groups will stop being each others’ bitter enemies and work as a team instead.

This dream can only be realised by providing — for a start — enough financial security to young civil servants to hold their own against the temptation of giving in to nefarious mafias and special interests. The transformation from being honest and upright to unscrupulous and servile seems improbable to one from the outside, but it occurs pretty quickly when one is in need of money for treatment of one’s pregnant wife or ailing parents in a private hospital — because the quality of government hospital facilities and services, that a government servant and his or her family is entitled to, is embarrassingly poor.

Mass resignations by civil servants during the ongoing budgetary session in parliament might make the government pay attention to this issue — but that is not an option because of a couple of reasons. First, civil servants are slaves to rules, and the rules do not allow them to rebel. Secondly, the honest lot among them do not have the savings to survive such an action, and the dishonest ones need not consider such an action.

“What happened to your spirit of public service?” I asked a friend jokingly. When he first joined the service he would often sermonise on such a civic responsibility, but now he seems to have lost all his previous enthusiasm. He left me speechless by replying with a couplet by Faiz Ahmed Faiz: Duniya ne teri yaad se begaana kar diya/ Tujh se bhi dil-fareb hain gham rozgaar ke (The world has made me forget you/ This drudgery is much more intoxicating).

The writer is a former civil servant.


Published in Dawn, June 12th, 2016