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The pensioner’s plight

March 19, 2013

GIVEN the way teachers and pensioners are treated in Pakistan, it is not a good idea to be either — worse still is being a teacher first and a pensioner later.

Had it not been for her, I would have not been able to write this; and had it not been for many like her, no reader would have been able to read this. After a career spanning well over three decades, my former teacher retired early last year in BPS 20 from her position as the principal of a college run in the federal capital by the federal government.

It would be no exaggeration to say that if ever anybody truly deserved the emoluments the government bestows on its employees on retirement, it would be her.

However, more than a year has passed but she is still waiting for her retirement benefits. This may be unfortunate, but it’s definitely not unexpected, for hers is not the only case that has been mishandled. The woes of pensioners, if they do not happen to be from the privileged class — which sadly does not include teachers — know no limits in Pakistan.

It is convenient to criticise the bureaucratic elite for slack systems and the media often takes that route. Yet a closer look reveals that the problem does not essentially lie with people higher up the bureaucratic hierarchy; it lies in the lower ranks. Employee unions and the trend of taking away bureaucrats’ discretionary powers have resulted in “look busy, do nothing” governance.

In most departments, a junior to middle-level officer is nothing more than a paper tiger. The maximum action that an officer can take against indiscipline on part of the lowest-ranked government employee is issue a warning or conduct a fruitless inquiry. Resultantly, even pragmatic officers lose motivation and a sense of ownership of their duties over time.

The department that deals with pensions and retirement benefits is section G8 of the Accountant General Pakistan Revenues (AGPR). The section is run by clerks under the supervision of officers that are helpless at the hands of the clever tactics by these clerks. They entwine officers and stakeholders in such a web of procedures and forms that getting a just claim through becomes a hugely arduous task.

The teacher to whom I am referring is a very meticulous individual, which is why the application she submitted to the AGPR was so thorough that even the staff at the AGPR could not come up with any objections — despite their best efforts. Therefore, she was told to come in a fortnight to get her claim.

A couple of weeks later, she was told to her utter surprise that no progress had been made in her case as the file that contained her documents had been lost and couldn’t be found. Such was the audacity of the clerk in charge that he told her rather disrespectfully that if she wanted to get her case processed, she must get duplicate copies of all the documents and submit them again.

Going from one office to another and getting duplicate copies of decades’ old records is an uphill task for even a young man, let alone a 61-year-old woman. Gutsy as my teacher is, she did even that and provided the department with the relevant file. After a few more rounds of objections and rejections the new dossier of documents was accepted.

To cut a long story short, it has now been 15 months since her retirement but she has neither received her pension nor a penny from her retirement benefits. More unfortunate is the fact that she is not an exception; this is the plight of a large number of pensioners who refuse to grease palms or pull strings.

Lastly, something that made me feel very uncivilised and selfish, and prompted me to write on the issue: her reply when I advised her to meet a very senior officer in AGPR who I know personally to get her case processed. She said, “Thanks for your help but I do not want selective justice. Also, I don’t think he would be able to do anything as most of these men are clueless about their duties.”

Then, she left me speechless by quoting the following verses from the poet Daagh, very apt considering her rich taste in literature (having taught the subject for decades), and befitting of the attitudes of our public servants: “Jin ko apni khabar nahin ab tak, Woh meray dil ka raaz kya janein; Jo guzartay hain Dagh per sadmay, Woh yeh banda nawaz kya janein.” (Those who are clueless about even their own self would obviously be oblivious to my secrets. Privileged as they are, they would obviously be oblivious of my sufferings.) Perhaps, in the end, it is relevant to mention that AGPR employees were on strike until an audit and accounts allowance at 20 per cent of basic pay with effect from March 1, 2013, was announced by the prime minister recently. Given inflation, this increase was justified; but I hope for a time when public servants will start taking performance as seriously as they take perks.

The writer is a civil servant.

syedsaadatwrites@gmail.com