COMMENTARY: Civil servants must be civil and willing to serve

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Badrul Ahsan Syed Badrul Ahsan
There has been much criticism of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution introduced by Bangabandhu’s government in January 1975. Despite all that criticism and whether or not the criticism was justified, it remains a fact that the amendment in question sought to bring about certain changes in governance strategy that could not be gainsaid at that point of time. Had the country not been subjected to the tragedy of August 1975, it may well be that those changes, especially in the administrative structure of the state, would have brought about a radical transformation of society.
It is those constitutional changes that we can, at this point, look back to as we contemplate the very grave need for a civil service that will serve the nation. As a western statesman put it long ago — and he was speaking of the bureaucracy in his country — civil servants are neither servants nor civil. It is a formulation that has consistently been at play in Bangladesh ever since the British colonial power decided that undivided India was in sore need of babus or brown sahibs to advance its cause in the subcontinent. Seventy years after the departure of the British, nations like Bangladesh are yet burdened with a bureaucracy that deliberately or by design remains out of touch with popular aspirations.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was cognisant of the problem. In the months before his assassination, he crisscrossed the country emphasizing a radically changed bureaucracy that would be attuned to the national pulse. His bluntness in stating how he wished civil servants to change their attitude towards administration left many of them miffed. In his earthy language, an exasperated Father of the Nation advised bureaucrats to step out of their trousers and get into shorts if they meant to be of use to the nation. He was driving a simple point home — that civil servants could not any more keep themselves aloof from the common masses, that they needed to do away with old ideas and embrace new thoughts in the service of the republic.
Forty two years after Bangabandhu’s assassination, the bureaucracy remains a burden on the nation. It is bloated. It lacks imagination. The changes it would have gone through did not come to pass because those who seized the State after August 1975 cheerfully restored the old order of decrepit governance. In time, a civil-military bureaucracy under two military dictators took shape and form, which in itself was a reminder of the nefarious way in which the Ayub Khan regime in the 1960s sought to elbow politicians aside and have their places taken by bureaucrats and military officers.
The Fourth Amendment, insofar as the administrative scheme of things was concerned, was a brave and necessary move to bulldoze that obsolete system into elimination and replace it with a people-oriented one. Bangabandhu’s government undertook the task bravely through segmenting the country into sixty districts, with each district to be administered by a governor. In simple terms, the objective was to dismantle the colonial administrative system and restructure it against the background of national liberty earned through a hard-fought war in 1971.
Bangabandhu’s goal did not come couched in ambiguity. He planned a new civil service that would abjure elitism. Today, elitism continues to define the bureaucracy in Bangladesh, which is why it is imperative that plans for a change again get underway. The red tape that has been a characteristic of the civil service has never been thrown away. At every level of the civil service, beginning with the upazila nirbahi officers and going all the way to the level of secretaries in the various ministries, bureaucrats operate at a considerable remove from citizens. The decades-long predominance of civil servants has even created conditions where ministers are often beholden to them in decision-making. In a big way, the sloth which underlies the administration together with the condescension with which bureaucrats work has held up the business of the State. When bureaucracy gets the upper hand, to a point where elected politicians are nervous about tackling it head-on, pluralistic politics suffers grave damage to its structure.
The bottom line is transparent. Forget the proposed Civil Servants Act. Forget all the exhortations to the civil service to serve the people. Forget the plethora of appointments and promotions and transfers which routinely are held up as images of administrative dynamism.
This nation is need of a new configuration in civil administration. In this People’s Republic, it will simply not do to carry on with a system that has little interaction with people. Thorough changes should be brought about in the way examinations for the Bangladesh Civil Service are conducted, the emphasis being on an induction of civil servants who will throughout their careers remain institutionally linked with the masses under the leadership of the political classes.
But in such conditions, the political classes will need restructuring on a massive scale, the idea for which can be drawn from Bangabandhu’s decision to create sixty districts to be headed by governors. Civil servants, to be appointed on the basis of competitive examinations but without the liberty of stating their options vis-à-vis the departments — secretariat, foreign service, police, customs, et cetera — they would like to work for, should be dispersed across the country to work under adequately and properly empowered local authorities.
Professionalism was what the Fourth Amendment aimed at. Bangabandhu consistently reminded the bureaucrats that the expenses incurred in their education and their employment in government were all borne by the struggling masses in the country. In turn, the bureaucrats were expected to serve those masses.
Let Bangabandhu’s thoughts on a reform of the civil service serve as the catalyst for the needed change. Yes, the civil service must be both civil and be ready to serve — once sweeping reforms are initiated and gone through by those elected to provide leadership to the nation.

Syed Badrul Ahsan: Associate Editor, The Asian Age. Contributing Columnist, Shottobani

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