Civil servants in the dock

11 Mar, 2020


The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

THE senior and mid-career civil servants gathered at a lunch all had tales of woe to tell. Their frustration was palpable. It was not just about constant political interference weakening the institution but also the indignity of being regularly summoned by the apex court and having to face judges making insulting remarks and questioning their credentials for being appointed to their posts.

Such remarks, invariably headline-making in the newspapers and splashed as breaking stories on the 24/7 news channels, make a civil servant appear guilty of something they are not necessarily responsible for. They live in constant fear of being investigated by NAB for any decision they make in their official capacity. “Sometimes I feel it’s better to go home than be hounded by NAB or humiliated in a courtroom,” said one of the senior bureaucrats.

Another officer who has been in the civil service for more than 30 years narrated what transpired when he appeared before the then chief justice who questioned his qualifications for being appointed to a senior government position. The judge didn’t seem convinced despite the officer telling him that he also holds a doctorate in economics.

Nothing can be more demoralising for civil servants than being frequently summoned to court and made a spectacle of. It also affects the dignity of the apex judiciary when judges make such threatening remarks as “I will put you in jail” or “I will make an example of you”. One former chief justice was fixated with, in his opinion, the “high” salaries paid to well-qualified professionals hired by the administration.

It’s business as usual and bureaucrats are required to serve the new political masters.

This type of judicial activism encroaches upon the authority of other state institutions, thus creating a serious imbalance in the system. Populism and a heady sense of power have driven many chief justices in the past decade to questionable practices unbecoming of that esteemed position.

Some populist rulings have caused incalculable damage not only to the judiciary but also to other institutions. It all started with retired Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry who, as chief justice of the Supreme Court, almost tried to impose judicial absolutism with his indiscriminate suo moto actions; that paralysed not only the bureaucracy but also the executive.

A number of Mr Chaudhry’s suo moto notices were just populist actions and never meant to be concluded. It was not only senior government officials, but also police inspectors who the former chief justice would summon. He would make sure that his theatrics in court were covered by the media. That set the precedent for every remark made by the judges to be highlighted in both the print and electronic media.

Retired Justice Saqib Nisar took this populist trend to new heights with his performances outside the court. His messiah complex got him involved even in activities completely outside the judiciary’s domain. Once such example was his crowdfunding for dams. One cannot find any other example of such hyper judicial activism. That has also been a reason for the existing paralysis in the top bureaucracy. It is difficult to erase the legacy of those two chief justices.

Perhaps the biggest nightmare of every civil servant is a call by NAB. It is not exclusively about graft; any decision taken by them can put them in trouble. So why should one take any decision at all? It is rare for an anti-graft body to have such wide-ranging powers. There are many senior civil servants who have been in NAB’s detention for months without any charge.

There have been some cases of officials being hounded even after having been retired for more than a decade. Vice chancellors of state universities have actually been detained for decisions pertaining to the hiring of lower staff. Surely, there have been some cases of wrongdoing and corruption involving bureaucrats, but questioning every civil servant for decisions they take in their official capacity makes everyone nervous. Fear of NAB makes them sit on files. That has slowed down the entire system of governance. “No one wants to stick his neck out,” said one of the officers.

In order to protect civil servants, the situation has compelled the government to amend NAB’s powers, but the bill is still pending. Surely the move will help restore the confidence of the civil servants to some extent, but it will not be enough to improve the performance of the bureaucracy. Political interference and politicisation of the bureaucracy has also been a major cause for deterioration in the civil services. It has made it extremely difficult for an upright civil servant to survive in the system.

The PTI government has come to power on the slogan of strengthening and depoliticising institutions. But most of the bureaucrats gathered at the lunch believed that things have become worse under the new government. Frequent transfers and changes have further eroded the efficiency of civil servants in all departments.

It’s business as usual and civil servants are required to serve the new political masters. Merely giving civil servants protection from legal action against their decisions would not change the situation. There is also a need to change the prevailing political culture of using bureaucracy to serve the interests of the party in power.

Every political party when in opposition talks about making the bureaucracy non-political, but it forgets its solemn pledge when in power. Same is the case with the PTI government. The government has reportedly approved a plan to reform and restructure the civil service to make it more effective. According to media reports, the reform plan includes steps to make promotions in the civil bureaucracy more performance-based. Undoubtedly, this will be a positive move to reinvigorate the civil service.

But the plan cannot be effective without ensuring the autonomy of the institutions; that would reduce political pressure, even if it does not fully eliminate it. No state can function and move forward without an effective and professionally competent civil bureaucracy. There is also a need for the judiciary to shed some aspects of its troubling legacy.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, March 11th, 2020