Recruitment through merit and competition is not a very old phenomenon. In the United Kingdom, the Northcote-Trevelyan Report introduced recruitment through competition rather than nomination in 1854.It also enacted that recruitment into the civil service should be by open examination, conducted by an independent civil service board and that promotion would be on merit, not preferment, patronage, purchase, or length of service. And, in the United States, only in 1883, merit was accepted as a criterion for recruitment through enactment of Pendleton Act.
The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act established that positions within the federal government would be awarded on the basis of merit instead of political affiliation. The act provided for selection of government employees by competitive exams, rather than connections to politicians or political affiliation. However, it did not come into being automatically. Even a president, namely President Garfield, was killed by a disgruntled job seeker before this drastic departure from the spoils system.
Of late, in Bangladesh, the Prime Minister has abolished the quota system in the public service in response to the demand of reformation of the quota system. There have been mixed reactions to this declaration of the Prime Minister. However, the Prime Minister deserves true appreciation for coming out with a concrete policy declaration without much delay as situation seemed to be going out of control since students across the country started to gather at the streets and life at the main cities was coming to a halt.
The scenario also created such a situation where the government and the students were literally face-to-face. In fact, the students wanted reformation, not abolition. The government earlier took one month’s time for examination of the existing Quota System and that was very justified considering the ramifications related to quota. The biggest group of the agitators went back home in response to the step of the government. However, things became complicated following statements of two senior ministers of the government.
Very senior and dedicated Awami League leader Matia Chowdhury severely criticised mainly the miscreants responsible for vandalism at Dhaka University VC’s house. Unfortunately, her speech was construed as against the agitators in general. However, the octogenarian Finance Minister’s comment poured fuel into the flame while he said that the quota reformation issue would be taken into consideration after the budget. It was quite contrary to the promise of Awami League General Secretary.
Following Finance Minister’s uncalled-for comment, the agitators found something to doubt the promise of the government. As a result, the group, which had withdrawn from the movement, returned to the streets. As emotions got contagious through the social media, students from different universities and colleges started to join the movement spontaneously.
Currently, there are basically two bases of recruitments in the public service. One is merit and another one is quota or special arrangement for some sections of the society and these sections are disadvantaged ones and laggards. This very quota system is called affirmative action in United States and positive discrimination in United Kingdom. In fact, this kind of reservation is acknowledged and accepted all over the world for having representation of all sections of the society. In other words, quota is required to have a truly representative bureaucracy in the public service.
Here, ‘representative’ means having ‘representation’ of all sections of the society’. There is no denying that merit should be the prime criterion for recruitment in the public service. However, it should not be the only criterion. Bureaucracy is criticised to remain exclusive from the society. Having a fully merit-based bureaucracy without opportunities for representation of all sections and regions of a country bears the danger of having a more exclusive bureaucracy. In the long run, it might have very debilitating impact on the nationhood. So, quota cannot be abolished entirely.
The Prime Minister has hinted about forming a committee in this regard. The Cabinet Secretary is billed to head this committee. However, the government can seriously consider forming a high-powered committee to delve into the issue of quota in the context of present realities in Bangladesh. People from the academia and the civil society should be included in the committee to have comprehensive information and threadbare discussions. The committee should be representative as overdependence on bureaucracy is, at times, counterproductive.
The Prime Minister has categorically said that there would be no quota in the public service. A gazette is likely to be issued in this connection which should clarify some more related issues. As the Prime Minister has made a definitive statement, the abolition is supposed to be implemented on time. Though some people are seriously opposed to the idea of abolition, the abolition itself might open up new avenues for reformation of the quota system. Though some quotas may remain abolished for some time, they may be brought back if necessity arises.
I think this abolition has provided an opportunity to rigorously review the quota system. This is a great opening to overhaul and streamline the whole quota system. The government has ready data against all kinds of quotas such as freedom fighters, women, and districts, the tribal and the disabled. Thus, application of the quotas and their current picture will come out during the stock-taking.
This very stock-taking will provide pragmatic ideas as to whether some quotas need to be brought back or streamlined. People of all walks of life have progressed a lot. However, their competitiveness is yet to be at par. Thus, negation of some kind of reservation will not be sensible at this stage. We can expect that our bureaucracy will be more merit-based from now onwards. However, is it going to bring about real changes in public service delivery?
Rationalisation of quota is justified and a need of the hour. That is why prominent academics of the country supported the movement. However, will the students, who become bureaucrats on the strength of increase of merit quota in the public service, be pro-people and corruption-free? Merit will be of no use for the country if that is devoid of morality because meritorious yet wicked people are great burdens for the society. The students of the country have shown great resilience in the movement for quota system. Will they, however, be able to resurrect from the morbid master-like attitude of the bureaucracy after they are in the service?
The writer is a Professor, Department of Public Administration, Chittagong University.