In April this year, students launched a movement demanding reforms in the existing quota system for government jobs. They demanded that the existing 45 per cent quota in public service appointments for merit be increased to 90 per cent. Several university teachers and others expressed their solidarity with the demand. A number of the protestors even met with ministers of the government. The prime minister addressed the parliament at the time and declared that all quotas, except a specific few, would be abolished. Her declaration brought the movement to an immediate end. It was said that a committee would be formed to deal with the matter. The committee has been formed, albeit after two months. I wish them all success.
Even those who had expressed solidarity with the reform demands, mysteriously withdrew from the scene. Certain quarters have come up with criticism too. Under the circumstances, it would be prudent for the protestors to proceed with caution. Since a secretary-level committee has taken up the issue, it would be best to wait with patience. If they take a wrong step at anyone’s behest, they will have to suffer.
The secretary-level committee has finally been formed, albeit rather late. The committee comprises senior officials of the republic. They are experienced persons in responsible positions. They have been given the responsibility to assist the government in resolving the issue of quota reforms. While the demand for reforms is strong, there are also beneficiaries of the existing system. So it will naturally not be possible to fully please everyone. Also, these quotas have been introduced time to time by executive order as well as political decision. So changes will require political decision. The cabinet committee must be well-equipped with all the facts and figures to come up with the recommendations. It is their constitutional duty to do so.
Article 29 of the constitution gives equal opportunity to all citizens for appointment to public service. The government has also been given the authority for special provisions to ensure representation of certain disadvantaged sections of the society too. The secretary-level committee must be sensitive towards this too. The ethnic minorities, disabled and women can be considered in this category. Given developed communications, district quotas can no longer be considered valid. If it has to be kept, then this should be applied only to certain very backwards districts.
A large percentage of the priority quota, that is 30 per cent, goes to the offspring of freedom fighters. There is an element of emotion attached to this. The freedom fighters risked their lives for an independent country. As a nation, we have a responsibility in this regard. The secretary-level committee will take this into consideration too. There are about 300,000 registered freedom fighters so far. Their offspring will not exceed 1.6 million in number. It would be wise to revise the priority quota accordingly.
The freedom fighters did not join the war for any material gain. That is why, in the same spirit, no special provision in this regard was included in the constitution. We want the quotas to recognise history, but in proper perspective. The quota for the ethnic minority must also be reviewed in accordance to their population. Women’s quota remains relevant as women’s empowerment has not been significant. They even have to have reserved seats in parliament. As they are disadvantaged compared to their male counterparts, they may be given this provision in keeping with the spirit of the constitution.
There are documents that will assist the secretary-level committee in carrying out their task. Immediately after independence, a public administrative reforms commission was formed, headed by renowned political scientist Muzaffar Ahmed Choudhury. The commission had unequivocally recommended public service based entirely on merit. Similar recommendations were made in 1977 by the public service and pay commission headed by former secretary Abdur Rashid. In 1994 while Ayubur Rahman was cabinet secretary, a committee of four secretaries reviewed the matter. They gave priority to merit, recommending a gradual abolition of the quotas.
In 1996, during Awami League government’s term, the Public Administration Reform Committee (PARC) recommended removal of all the quotas that were contrary to the spirit of the constitution and to place priority on merit. In 2008 Akbar Ali Khan and Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad, as consultants of the Public Service Commission, reviewed the quota issue extensively and drew up a detailed report. They also recommended a cut in quotas for the offspring of freedom fighters. They stressed on prioritising merit. Other than that, various annual reports of the Public Service Commission have commented on the qualitative deterioration due to the quotas. Research carried out by BRAC University’s Institute of Governance Studies has also pointed to the negative consequences of the existing quota system.
There have been comments that the ongoing movement aims at increasing job opportunities for the college and university students. This is not untrue. But the cabinet committee must keep in mind that the quota reforms are not essential for them alone. The entire public service benefits with the inclusion of meritorious students. This will boost government performance. Our civil service is often castigated, at home and abroad, for the rapidly declining standards. Development partners are openly critical and have even facilitated training in line with their requirements. However, if the raw material is not up to the mark, even the best whether the machine is of highest quality but the raw materials are of low, the best machinery cannot manufacture quality products.
The 21st century has ushered in a competitive world. Communications among countries are expanding at a rapid pace. Smart and intelligent officials are needed to grab these opportunities. We can achieve that by appointing the more meritorious candidates. Salaries and benefits were previously inadequate, but that has improved considerably and so many meritorious students are now applying for public service. It is imperative therefore to relax the quota system in the interests of the country. A political government undoubtedly has certain compulsions. But those can be addressed even by raising the quota or merit to a justified level.
Naturally, no system is the last word. Reality is also changing. The secretary-level committee surely realises the gravity of the responsibility placed upon them. We hope they bring the quotas to a justified level and assist the government in the reforms.
*Ali Imam Majumder is a former cabinet secretary. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The piece, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Nusrat Nowrin