Syed Ishtiaque Reza
During the first phase of covid-19 infestation, we remember one story that drew flak on social media in March, 2020. Assistant Commissioner (Land) Sayeema Hasan conducted a mobile operation in different areas of Monirampur upazila, Jessore. During the drive, she asked three elderly men, including a van driver and a vegetable vendor, at local bazar to hold their ears with their hands in public as punishment for not wearing masks. She also captured a photo of the punishment and posted it on her official Facebook page.
Later two other field level bureaucrats have drawn attention of the people for their weird actions. In Narayanganj senior citizen Farid Ahmed was fined by Sadar Upazila Nirbahee Officer Arifa Johura for calling for aid through the ‘333 national helpline’. The UNO went there and found that Mr. Farid resides in a four-story building. Without judging his real condition, the bureaucrat fined the man who has no income for a long time. Farid was ordered to provide the 100 poor families with food. He borrowed money and pawned his daughter’s jewellery for the Tk 65,000 he needed to comply with the order.
In another incident, Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) Seema Sharmin fined a goat owner Tk 2,000 for eating flowers in the garden of Bogra’s Adamdighi Upazila Parishad premises. Poor woman Sahara Khatun, the owner of the goat, alleged that the goat was sold at the local market for Tk 5,000 as she could not pay the fine.
And we also remember the famous Sultana Sarober incident in Kurigram. Deputy Commissioner Sultana Pervin illegally named a renovated pond after her which was reported by Dhaka Tribune Reporter Ariful Islam. Failing to convince Arif, event after giving repeated threats and offering bribes, the DC conducted mobile court in the early hours of March 14, 2020 and jailed Arif. Executive Magistrate Rintu Bikash Chakma who conducted the drive arrested Ariful. During the drive, the mobile court said they had recovered drugs and alcohol from the journalist’s residence, which was later found completely fabricated.
All these recent incidents tell us many things about our bureaucracy now. Being public servants, the above bureaucrats are insensible, they are not accountable, they lack sensitivity to the citizens, who actually pay their salaries and the government officers are happy to swing muscle using the state power. In all these cases the officials were given light departmental punishments and one was given complete mercy as she applied to the president. In every stage the bureaucracy shows little accountability to the people who are actually their employer.
If we categorize public perception about bureaucracy, the synopsis is like this: (a) the bureaucracy is inefficient in the decision making process, (b) the bureaucracy avoids responsibility, (c) the bureaucracy is not accessible to the public, (d) the bureaucracy lacks a problem-solving approach, and (e) the bureaucracy gives preference to personal interests instead of public interests.
Bangladesh now has a mammoth sized bureaucracy with hundreds of additional, joint and deputy secretaries being promoted every year without having scopes to post them in their positions. Reengineering, restructuring and reorganization of the government’s overall size is a longtime ambition as our public service system led by systematized bureaucracy, originated during the colonial era, is top-heavy in structure, coterie in thought, addicted to protocol and authoritarian in dealing with the public. In every step, it is felt that the capacity of the state to deliver to its citizens has eroded to an unimaginable low due to ineffective, corrupt and sycophant bureaucracy.
People in Bangladesh always think of a bureaucracy that is efficient and corruption free. To prevent corruption in the public sector, the salaries and benefits of government employees had been increased by the government at a high rate. Yet corruption is the most pronounced word in every sphere of the government offices where the public service providers are involved.
Politicians always talk about a corruption-free administration, but they give little thoughts on efficiency of the bureaucracy through making the structure right sized and smart. Rather, people feel that a politician-civil servant nexus exists that leads to financial corruptions. A sustained and mutually respectful dialogue between the bureaucratic leadership and the civil society is necessary to make the former accountable to the citizens and systems.
Efforts should be there to shield bureaucratic decision-makers from the undue influence of stalwarts in political and business power quarters. Regardless of the citizens’ grievances about the bureaucratic insensitivity to public interest, the country cannot do without an efficient bureaucracy. Political masters should think of pro-people work culture in the bureaucracy to end the rule of rent seekers.
The writer is a journalist.