CIVIC OBSTRUCTION

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Pakistan’s vast and extensive civil service is a remnant of a colonial past, and like any other public institution of the country, it desperately needs reform and renovation. While Pakistan’s aforementioned colonialism heavily influences its current political culture, social institutions, and the bureaucratic formation, it is only in light of a modernizing global world that breaking away from that past has become more pertinent than ever before. There was a time when the British Prime Minister Lloyd George famously referred to the Indian Civil Service as the ‘steel frame that holds the British Raj together’; this concrete steel structure now acts as a boundary wall for those within it and as an ‘obstruction’ for those outside it.

government-offices

It has been nearly 70 years since South Asia rid itself off the ghost of the British Raj; and it has taken nearly the same amount of time to settle into a dormancy that has never questioned the excess of complicated rules, details, and procedures needed to even start being a legitimate part of the socio political fabric of the country. Pakistan’s bureaucratic holdup is then a by-product of an acute inefficiency and inertia that has plagued institutions that otherwise have to necessarily be competent, neutral, and honest; Good governance has become an everlasting myth.

While non-elected public institutions and its civil officers have had some semblance of autonomy in decision making, over the years the political power of the bureaucracy has come under the influence of both civilian and military governments. Interference in and politicization of this vast bureaucratic arm of the state has led to corruption, inefficiency, arrogance, ignorance, and an incisive abuse of authority. In truth, the larger prevailing societal attitudes and behaviors has led to the formation of a mindset infused with class-conscious discrimination and entrenched elitism; a colonial hang-over to be sure. This temperament, when translated institutionally, often reflects a dysfunctional and exploitative nature of interaction between the state and its citizens. The state’s bureaucratic neutrality is supposed to give it a strategic advantage, instead it ends up creating a pompous bureaucratic arrogance, in effect barring the common man from any and all comprehension of this administrative maze. In addition, with virtually no institutional checks and balances, a decline in internal monitoring and accountability, mis allocation of public resources, dwindling investments and development funds, shortage of staff, excess bribery and nepotism, and violence and abuse of power have not only become stark features of Pakistan’s bureaucratic establishment, but are also symptoms of its failing capacity. The country’s civil service system has since remained frozen in time- unresponsive and inactive.

To start with, the common man is made to feel a kind of existential dread and gloom when confronted with the vast machinery of the state; as if he doesn’t belong and is being granted a favor by being granted access. Its not the sheer size that matters, but the nature of interaction within that setting. Provided public services of the country are in dire straits, the dilapidated conditions of the offices and services are certainly not welcoming; and add that to an unfriendly and patronizing attitude of the civil officers, you have yourself a recipe for discontent and disaster. Many sitting behind the desk consider themselves a notch above the common populace. They have the looks of authority, but share none of the responsibility of that authority. Moreover, the elaborate paperwork and administrative requirements around simple processes are not only complicated, but also time consuming, perplexing, and in some cases even humiliating. Loud arguments and fights are a common sight. It mostly occurs either due to the helplessness of the citizen or the self-entitled attitude of the civil officer. There are also no inculcated concepts of queues and lines within the masses, but even then the physical designations of individual counters create unnecessary lags, delaying the process even further.

While most of the state machinery is in the process of being computerized or automated, the fact that the move hasn’t created efficiency and competency raises some pressing questions: Who is ultimately responsible for an orderly organization of individual offices? Who trains the workers for public dealing? Who are they answerable to in the state? Why isn’t there a distinction between bureaucratic postings and executive orders? Why aren’t there mechanism in place for checks and balances? Why can’t they contextualize bureaucratic processes according to time, place, and necessity? What are some of the proposed reforms to change the lags in the system? Why haven’t they been implemented?

It seems the answer is embedded in the very social, political, economic, and moral issues of our collective consciousness: If the system ‘is not broken then why fix it?’. It is high time we move beyond our apathy and self-imposed paralysis to start reforming our archaic institutional mentality that teaches us to live in a Hegelian ‘Master/Slave’ relationship that undermines the dignity, respect, AND patience of the common citizen. Being part of the system means that we improve its conditions that will not only benefit us but also our the future generations.

By ShahBano Khan