A SPEECH of the public administration secretary at Dhaka’s divisional commissioner’s office has recently gone viral on social media, with heaps of arguments, counter-arguments, comments that have attracted ordinary people. People came to know many things about the other side of the administration from this speech. The secretary told the media that it was an in-house meeting and it was unwarranted that his statement would become public. Although it was unwarranted, people most probably heard this sort of statement for the first time from a senior public servant.
We know Bangladesh is a unitary state and administered by the single government sitting in Dhaka, the capital. But for administrative purposes, it is broadly divided into eight administrative divisions, 64 districts with 492 upazilas. Upazila is the lowest administrative unit where administration cadre officers are posted and the structural module of the local government is also visible there. These units have a good command or control over the far lowest local government what is called union coucils. As we know that administrative cadre officers are educated and almost all of them have master’s and even more. They get on the job through highly competitive examinations and for that, they make the preparations to take the examinations in last stages of their academic lives. Considering facilities, security, power, position and future, candidates are interested in this administrative job.
We know that Bangladesh Civil Service administration inherits the legacy of the ICS of the British Raj and the erstwhile CSP of the Pakistan era. ICS officers were the backbones of the administrative system in the then India and in the same ways, the Civil Service of Pakistan was ere also the government’s eye, ear and nose in many ways. Behaviorally, ICS officers were snobs and all the time they try to disregard people’s representatives of the then India. We get this reference in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India. The situation is described there pointedly. He said that salary of secretaries was two to three times higher than that of ministers of state governments in 1937. And the secretaries were more loyal to their English masters than to elected people’s representatives such as Indian ministers and members of the legislative.
During the Pakistan period, CSP officers became very powerful and most of the cases they used to overpower their political masters. They always distance/distinguish themselves from ordinary people and other civilian officers. After the independence of Bangladesh, a large number of officers were recruited into the administrative service without proper competitive examinations. As a result, the standards and quality of the officers had fallen and they were posted to districts and outlying areas without sufficient and proper training although they would think that they had enough quality to carry out their duties.
For this reason, the quality, image and service of the civil service declined drastically. In the late 1970s and 1980s, recruitment in civil service got momentum and the 1979 and 1981 batches were recruited and this way, the 1982 batch was recruited later. A number of brilliant officers were recruited in these three batches.
But after the declaration of martial law, the new scenario of civil service came to the forefront. In the reorganisation of administrative units. sub-divisions were abolished and all sub-divisions became districts overnight and the lowest administrative unit, thana, was upgraded and later renamed as upazila. Upazila nirbahi officers and upazila magistrates, assistant commissioners (finance) and assistant commissioners (land) were posted to all upazilas. Structurally, the new dimension of administrative system came to the forefront.
Till now Bangladesh has experienced two events of military takeover and one military-backed caretaker government. In the time of military ruling, civil service officers in the field level became more snobs and stiff-necked. In districts and upazilas, administrative cadre officers generally show themselves as people of upper class and everywhere they try to show their predominance without much logic. They always try to uphold the legacy of the ICS and CSP mentality. But it is true that the officers are now dealing with free people of the independent Bangladesh. The mental framework of administrative cadre officers still appears to be like that of CSP and ICS officers. In mobile courts, public examinations halls and everywhere in districts, people consider them to be snobs. It seems that the people respect them not from their heart but out of intimidation. This is what generally happens across the country.
On the other side, it is not clear how and which way ordinary people address government officers. At the Public Administration Training Centre, any of the faculties did not or could not elaborate on or explain this issue. Even high-ups in different cadres do not have clear explanations on this issue whereas all of them are public servants. But in reality, servants act as masters. For that reason none of them could give definite or decisive opinions regarding this issue.
So this issue remains as a grey area since the inception of their career as public servants and it has become part of government officers’ culture. Nowadays, in ordinary cases, administrative officers’ attitude to local level ruling party members or leaders is mild and not that much aggressive which is what with leaders or members of other parties. In this case, they sometimes have to compromise to keep off unwanted posting and transfer. This is the weakest area that they deal with.
In the current socio-cultural and political situation, the administrative cadre officers posted to districts and upazilas are in a great dilemma. Their behaviour should be people-friendly and people should have an easy access to the services they officiate. The grey areas should be properly addressed by policymakers. It is a matter of satisfaction that high-ups in the bureaucracy now think of improvement in the behavioural pattern and services delivery of the civil service more. Introducing the new annual confidential report form is one of the endeavours and it was a long-standing demand of the officers. If it happens, the situation might change and local level officers will be more pro-active and people-friendly. This is the high time that high-ups thought about this issue.
Dr Syed Nesar Ahmad Rumy is a retired civil servant.
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