Public servants or lords and masters?

The minister of defence acted like a minister of offence when he publicly slapped a senior police officer.  More recently, the law minister became a law unto himself and slapped a PIA passenger for protesting that his son had jumped the queue at an airport check-in. There have been many incidents of ministers or high officials giving a public thrashing to lower minions.  What use is power if it can’t be demonstrated!  What good is high office if one can’t even slap someone lower down the order! 

Commenting on the application of a young Indian woman for a visa and permanent residence in Pakistan as a result of her marriage to a Pakistani citizen, a concerned section officer of the Interior Ministry – and a very concerned one at that – has been quoted as saying that it could spell trouble because of the differences in tradition and culture of the two countries. 

Needless to say, the woman in question (Asha Patel, now Ayesha Mumtaz) has converted from Hinduism to Islam for the sake of her marriage to Khalid Mumtaz, but her visa application has been refused twice already, preventing her from joining her husband inPakistan.

According to the Daily Times report (June 14, 2006), the section officer commented that the Mughal Emperor Akbar had made a “similar error” by marrying Hindu women who disclosed his secrets.  He said there was no love between the couple, rather the marriage was the result of the “fever” spread by Indian movies. According to him, Muslims and Hindus were poles apart and they could never live together.

Obviously, this officer’s mouth is bigger than his boots, but he is not alone.  In Pakistan, every government leader and official is something of a loose cannon. There is no code of conduct for public servants or, if there is one, no one knows about it.  Officers can say what they want in complete breach of their responsibilities and limits as public servants.  In this case, an officer responsible for assessing residency and citizenship applications chose to comment on Hindu-Muslim and Indo-Pakistani relations, and threw in a history lesson for good measure. 

I remember once complaining in writing to a high official of the University Grants Commission (now Higher Education Commission) about the time-wasting, cumbersome and, in my view, unnecessary requirement of the No Objection Certificate for overseas academic visits by university faculty.  He advised me to feel lucky being a Pakistani, for there were countries like Iraq, Syria and the Soviet Union where one had to return one’s passport after a foreign trip.

Another officer of the Higher Education Wing of the Ministry of Education, who regarded himself as something of an intellectual, told me not to complain for he had observed, while attending a “course” at Harvard University, that a concierge in the university housing where he stayed kept a watch on everyone’s movements!

Loose talk in the corridors of power is the norm rather than the exception in Pakistan.  It afflicts all levels of the government and bureaucratic hierarchy.  The higher the position, the greater the propensity to proffer gratuitous advice, make offensive comments and pass orders in violation of authority and procedure.  Ministers and senior officials regard themselves as the know-alls, do-alls and fix-alls. 

Prime ministers and ministers have been known to pass on-the-spot orders suspending officials, from engineers to police constables, for alleged dereliction of duty. The reason could be a personal affront, a public outcry or a desire for cheap popularity.  A recent example was President Musharraf’s reported “order” to deny a Pakistani visa to the Indian movie star Firoz Khan in future. 

Not so long ago, the minister of defence acted like a minister of offence when he publicly slapped a senior police officer.  More recently, the law minister became a law unto himself and slapped a PIA passenger for protesting that his son had jumped the queue at an airport check-in. There have been many incidents of ministers or high officials giving a public thrashing to lower minions.  What use is power if it can’t be demonstrated!  What good is high office if one can’t even slap someone lower down the order!

Officials sitting on selection boards in Pakistan act like pompous mandarins who view themselves as reservoirs of knowledge and ask questions to show it.  The opportunity to sit on selection boards has the effect of inflating the already large egos of officials.  They follow no guidelines or framework. 

Having asked a “difficult” question, an official will sometimes give a look of satisfaction at having, in his view, left a great impression on his colleagues and scared the wit out of the poor interviewee!  The questions may not have any relevance to the position for which the interview is being conducted.  Officials on selection boards often prove the adage that the biggest fool can ask questions to which the wisest man may not know the answer.

Even if we exclude the elements of nepotism and favouritism, blatant as they are, selection boards are predisposed to take seriously some candidates and make short shrift of others.  Assumptions are made and everything else becomes a charade. No written records of interviews are kept, and there is no right of appeal or review.

It is instructive to look into the rules that govern the conduct of public servants in a Western democracy.  Let us takeAustralia.  The Code of Conduct of the Australian Public Service (APS) requires that, among other things, an employee must, in the course employment:

“Act with care and diligence; treat everyone with respect and courtesy, and without harassment; comply with all applicable Australian laws; maintain appropriate confidentiality; disclose, and take reasonable steps to avoid, any conflict of interest (real or apparent); not provide false or misleading information in response to a request for information that is made for official purposes; not make improper use of inside information or the employee’s duties, status, power or authority, in order to gain, or seek to gain, a benefit or advantage for the employee or for any other person”.

Then there are the APS Values which define the service as “apolitical, performing its functions in an impartial and professional manner, [which] delivers services fairly, effectively, impartially and courteously to the Australian public and is sensitive to the diversity of the Australian public”.

Add to these the seven principles of the Charter of Public Service in a Culturally Diverse Society, viz., access, equity, communication, responsiveness, effectiveness, efficiency and accountability.  The Charter requires that Government services should:

“Be available to everyone who is entitled to them and should be free of any form of discrimination; be developed and delivered on the basis of fair treatment of clients who are eligible to receive them; use strategies to inform eligible clients of services and their entitlements and how they can obtain them; and be sensitive to the needs and requirements of clients from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds, and responsive as far as practicable to the particular circumstances of individuals”.

We do not live in an ideal world and, everywhere, reality will always fall short of the goal.  The best that any country can do is to legislate regulations, formulate policies and guidelines, create frameworks and do its best to enforce them, as western countries have done.

It is probably too much to ask of our public servants and government leaders to follow a code of conduct comparable to the above.  But we must at least check the tendency on their part to comment on extraneous or irrelevant matters, outside or beyond their area of responsibility or jurisdiction.  The public also has the right to expect public servants to treat clients who seek government services with the minimal courtesy they deserve.

(Pubished in Daily Times, 22 June 2006)

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