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Bureaucrats have rights too

Updated November 08, 2018


THE government has started blaming the bureaucracy for obstructing its measures. Unless it secures a fair balance in the politician-bureaucrat relationship it will be able to neither achieve administrative efficiency nor avert embarrassing situations of the kind witnessed recently.

Two district officers in Punjab took the new government’s slogan about change seriously and concluded that they were no longer bound to accept dictation from parliamentarians. They ignored the latter’s demand to transfer some patwaris and reported the matter to the higher authorities. They also made the matter public. Their reward was notices of disciplinary action.

Then a district police officer was transferred in strange circumstances. The affair attracted the attention of the apex court but it took a lenient view and dropped the matter after causing the Punjab chief minister a sleepless night or two. It was said that government officials had to cooperate with the elected representatives.

Take a look: IGP Islamabad’s removal

The definition of a competent bureaucrat includes the ability to keep his political boss out of trouble.

Now we have the case of the Islamabad police chief’s transfer. The matter is sub judice and we cannot comment on it. However, notice can be taken of an official spokesperson’s statement to the effect that if the prime minister cannot transfer an inspector general of police (IGP), there is no fun in winning an election.

This statement not only belittles the office of the prime minister, it also undermines the sanctity of the election system. Yet, it represents a widely held view regarding the relationship between politicians in power and bureaucrats. We may recall the story about a chief minister telling Gen Musharraf that he would resign from office if he could not transfer the IGP. One of the important features of the Police Order, 2002, relating to the provincial police chief’s security of tenure, was thus abandoned, and the province had three IGPs in as many months.

Read: IGP who survived political pressure for 27 months sent packing

Quite obviously, due to its inability to remove the imbalance in the politician-bureaucrat relationship the government is blaming the bureaucracy for at least some of its own shortcomings. An effort to reform the civil services is reported to have been initiated, but reform will take time to materialise. Meanwhile, some attitudinal adjustments by political authorities and bureaucrats both could reduce the damage that friction between them will surely entail.

This is not the time to recall the beginning of the politician-bureaucrat imbalance during the early years of independence and how somewhat more experienced civil servants got the better of inexperienced ministers. The price paid for it, especially for marginalisation of the Bengali civil servants, total reliance on increasing West Pakistan’s exchange earnings and grabbing of evacuee property, is known.

At the moment, we are concerned with two developments that have undermined the administration’s efficiency and probity over the past decades: the bond of corruption between the unscrupulous elements among politicians in power and bureaucrats, and the end of security of tenure for the latter.

Early in the 1950s, quite a few politicians started mortgaging their souls to state functionaries who helped them win elections through unfair means. The partnership between the two has flourished throughout the intervening decades under military regimes as well as during civilian interludes. While helping their political patrons get personal benefits from their official positions, other than electoral advantage over their rivals, the bureaucrats have been reaping huge rewards for themselves as well.

In the 1970s, the government decided to destroy the so-called steel frame devised by the colonial rulers to protect the members of the services and enabled them to treat their fellow human beings the way the colonial masters wanted. While the end of the generalist CSP officers’ monopoly over all top posts in the secretariats could only be commended, the civil servants’ loss of security of tenure cost the country dear. Over the years, the bad coin in the services has been throwing the good one out of circulation.

As a result, the definition of a competent bureaucrat has been expanded to include, besides skill in regulating the movement of files or in preventing it, an ability to keep his political boss out of trouble and help him indulge in self-gratification.

In this process, the civil servant who was efficient and honest got sidelined and was often ridiculed by his peers for being out of sync with time and reality. There came a time when candidates successful in CSS tests started preferring ‘money-making’ services, such as police and customs, to the previously fancied district management and foreign service cadres.

As has often been pointed out, all new governments in Pakistan carry out wholesale reshuffling in services in order to fill at least key positions with their ‘yes’ persons. This amply confirms the tradition of preferring loyal officers to competent ones.

At this stage, there is no point in trying to find out who first started seducing whom. Perhaps both politicians and bureaucrats need to search their hearts and look for ways to regain the trust and respect of citizens who have been wronged all along.

The exercise may begin by enforcing in letter and spirit a few basic principles of discipline and propriety. The tendency to condemn all politicians and all bureaucrats as rotten eggs must be given up. Nobody can deprive the political authority of its right to hire and fire bureaucrats, but decisions in both situations must be sustainable in law and convention.

The downgrading of the public service commissions by dumping favourites there and putting chosen posts outside their purview will have to be given up. The bureaucrats who have the courage to disagree with the political bosses are a national asset. They deserve to be respected, at least to be listened to.

In the old days, politicians, who could defend themselves in legislatures, were advised against attacking civil servants in public for the latter had no comparable forum to defend themselves. The tradition is worth reviving. Above all, bureaucrats too have rights and the government would be well advised to encourage them to speak about these through their unions and associations.

Published in Dawn, November 8th, 2018