Writer and thinker Akbar Ali Khan is a former cabinet secretary and also former caretaker government adviser. In an interview with Prothom Alo, he talks on an array of issues including politics, bureaucracy, recent confrontations , good governance, economics and more.
Recently political leaders and activists clashed with the police at the upazila nirbahi officer's residence in Barishal. What does all this indicate?
The Barishal incident was most unfortunate. This incident indicates political decay, and it also indicates decay in the administration. After all, in a democratic country, the duty of political leaders is to draw up policies, and it is the duty of the bureaucracy to apply or implement those policy decisions. So the bureaucracy and the politicians should be complementary to each other. Yet they are at loggerheads instead. That is unfortunate. There is no reason for the bureaucracy to take this independent stance.
Then again, the function of the civil service association is basically to deal with their service related facilities and benefits. The civil servants have no authority to take action against politicians and it does not seem that they want to do so. But unfortunately after the Barishal incident, it looks like that is what they want.
There are similar instances in India. Conflict had broken out in Uttar Pradesh between the politicians and the IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officers. But the IAS officers in Uttar Pradesh criticised themselves too, as much as they criticised the politicians. In the nineties in Uttar Pradesh, the association every year would identify two or three corrupt officials and their names would even be published. If such action is taken, then the statements made by the bureaucracy would have some sort of moral backing. But there was no moral backing whatsoever in the incident that occurred in Barishal. The civil servants said that they work in keeping with the prime minister's directives. The prime minister is also the head of a political party and the political party acts at her behest. So there is no point to using the prime minister as an excuse.
Luckily the secretary and the divisional commissioners did not agree with the statement of the association. The association has no clout without the secretary and the divisional commissioners and so I think the matter will be patched up soon. But patching up is not enough. It should be ensured that this does not happen again in the future.
After those clashes, there was sharp reaction to the language used in the statements made by the Administrative Service Association about 'dealing with political rogues.' Was this spontaneous or was it the eruption of long-brewing lava?
Whatever the case may be, it was not normal. In India, the IAS officers had blamed political unruliness, but also identified the miscreants among themselves. Over here, only the politicians were blamed. The bureaucracy did not acknowledge that there may be unruly elements among themselves too. It was a completely biased stance.
There are allegations about excessive politicisation among the civil servants and this is being openly manifest. How would you assess the situation?
There certainly has been a sharp increase in politicisation. In my book I have identified what has happened in Bangladesh as 'Gresham's Law syndrome'. In other words, evil people here are rewarded and the good ones are repressed. Over here, if political leaders are appeased, one can get promoted. And if a correct decision displeases them, the concerned officer will be deprived of promotion. There definitely is massive politicisation of the administration in our country.
What steps must be taken to emerge from this sort of situation?
There are extremely clear laws, rules and regulations regarding these matters. If these matters are followed and if there is respect for the democratic system, then such things should not happen. Unfortunately, in Bangladesh, respect for democratic values has eroded. There is no easy remedy for this.
How far are politicians responsible for this situation?
Politicians certainly are to blame and so is the bureaucracy. Since the politicians run the administration of the country, they need to be more careful. There is need for action from the highest level in this regard.
The influence of officers of the administration has become more visible in recent times. There is talk of putting one secretary in charge of coordinating the relief programmes and coronavirus related work in each district.
It is not correct that only political leaders will be given leadership in everything and the secretaries will not be given any responsibility. Secretaries can be given responsibility in areas where their experience will make the work easier. But when given this responsibility, the secretaries shouldn't imagine themselves to be above the political leaders. The secretaries must work with their cooperation, under them. This increases the responsibilities of the administration officers greatly. If leadership is given to the political leaders, then the responsibility of the officers of the administration will lessen. But if the responsibility is given to the administration officers, then they can't just carry out their task. They have to keep the political leaders happy too.
The salary and other benefits and allowance of public servants have increased hugely, but even so corruption isn't decreasing. What is to be done?
I do not imagine that corruption will decrease simply if the salary of the public servants is increased. There are already many corrupt officers within the government. If the salary of the corrupt officers is increased, they will take the increased salary and continue with their corruption. Both their salaries and their corruption will increase. So the problem of corruption cannot be fixed in this manner. If the problem is to be addressed, discipline must be established in all spheres. Corrupt officers must be punished. But if they remain in their jobs and their salaries have to be increased, this will not resolve the corruption issue.
Many say that the weakening of the election system had weakened politics too. This has had an adverse impact on the administration and the police. How do you view the situation?
Actually fair elections are indispensible for democracy. The democratic system is endangered if there are no elections. Then there are attempts to take advantage of the situation in two manners. Those in power try to use the administration. And the administration, in turn, tries to extract unjustified favours from the government. Both sides try to extract what they can from each other. That is why firmly established democratic rule is imperative for good governance.
Do you see any signs of this?
I can see no signs of this at all because for the past 10 years there has been a decline according to internationally recognised indicators. There is no visible improvement at all. Good governance is steadily eroding. The administration in various sectors in Bangladesh is weaker than the administration in 80 per cent of the countries in the world. That is totally unwarranted. Good governance cannot be ensured in the country under these circumstances.
But economic development is closely linked with good governance. How will we move ahead then?
We have to be extremely cautious concerning economy. The pandemic has posed as a serious threat to our economy, but our planning commission claims our country is seeing rapid growth. Our shock graph is supposed like a 'V', with the left line going downwards and the right line to shoot up rapidly. That means there will be no problem. But I have doubts if this is actually a V. I feel the impact will linger for long.
In Bangladesh, 50 per cent of our present economy is from the service sector. This service sector has been hit hard by the pandemic. Earnings have fallen in all communication systems -- airline flights, launch and steamers on the riverways, road routes and so on. Restaurants, tourism, everything was shut. The service sector is not likely to see growth. When it is claimed that this sector will see a rapid rise in growth, a statement of India's Rahul Gandhi comes to mind. Prime minister Narendra Modi claimed that the country's GDP was shooting up. Rahul Gandhi retorted, what does he mean by GDP? Gas, Diesel and Petroleum? Yes, the prices of these three have definitely shot up. But if GDP means 'gross domestic product, then that has not gone up at all. So over here too, we must remember the definition of GDP before claiming that the GDP has gone up.
So what should we do in the days to come?
We must be cautious in the days to come. There is no point in being so excited. We must keep in mind that we are going through a serious problem. Good governance must be established to resolve this problem. Democracy must be strengthened and we must keep the poor in mind. After all, the number of poor people increases under such circumstances. We must always be alert about alleviating poverty.
You mentioned poverty and you have done research on this too. Is there need to change the definition of poverty in the present circumstance?
Firstly, our definition of poverty was devised in the backdrop of 1971. Our economy was in dire straits at the time and we defined poverty at a very low level. Now the countries of the world have gone far ahead. That definition of poverty also has to be pulled up. If we analyse that higher level of poverty, we will then see that the rate of poverty in Bangladesh is very high. Then again, the pandemic has had a serious effect on poverty. A BIDS study indicates that poverty no longer reduces at the rate it did in proportion to increase of per capita income. So now if poverty is to be reduced, per capita income must be increased at a much higher rate.
Secondly, the gap between our developed regions and under-developed regions is steadily increasing. Economic disparity is increasing.
Thirdly, the number of ultra-poor in our urban areas is also on a steady rise. Under these circumstances, we need to be alert concerning poverty and to take all sorts of measures to reduce it.
Thank you too
* This interview appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir