Colonial Overhang: Pakistan’s Administrative Bureaucracy – OpEd


The British directly ruled the subcontinent for nine long decades, all the way from 1857 till 1947. Their colonial rule ended in 1947 with the partition of the Subcontinent into two sovereign nation states: Pakistan and India. Even though it has been seventy-five years since the colonial rule ended, it has left a significant influence over the indigenous and systematic culture of the subcontinent.

Pakistan’s notable perceived administrative bureaucracy, which it inherited from Indian Civil Services (ICS) of colonial era, is the most pertinent example of post-colonialism. The British colonizers introduced and enforced its English-styled bureaucratic structure over the subcontinent for their ease to effectively run the administrative divisions for which they entrusted government officers with manifold administrative powers which in many ways still operates with the same mentality.

Today, in almost all of the developed countries, bureaucrats are highly qualified professionals who run the designated government institutions and its machinery instead of managing cities, municipalities, or towns. Whereas, in Pakistan, bureaucracy still acts on the 19th century system of civil services introduced by the English colonial masters at that time that shows we failed to move forward even after independence and carried the burden of colonial legacy of faltered policies. This article will look into the factors corroborating this system to still survive despite all suspicions.

Central Superior Services (CSS) examination, an entry gateway into the bureaucracy, is in itself a flawed parameter to measure one’s professional excellence. The CSS exams comprised of 10 to 12 written subjective papers and viva voice, but this is not enough to substantiate one’s competence, instead CSS exams ruins professional excellence and nullifies the worth of one’s educational qualifications because the definitive parameter necessary to qualify this exam is to have a strong grip over the Victorian-styled English language. Eventually, many capable candidates cannot make it into the higher echelons of civil bureaucracy every year due to a weak grip over the English language. For that reason, Pakistan’s bureaucracy is replete with and run by ordinary bachelor qualified, CSS-qualified officers who are more powerful and respected than highly educated Ph.D. scholars.

The colonial superiority of civil servants is still maintained in Pakistan as it was during the colonial rule where so-called Gora Sahab/Afsar (White Officer) was all in all of his assigned administrative district/division. The erroneous culture of Sahab/Afsar in the government offices is still prevalent even today that reveals how preservative we are of our colonial history. The Pakistan Administrative Services (PAS), the most powerful services group in the bureaucracy, responsible for managing districts’ administration across the country, sits at the top of all other services groups. However, the recruitments in such a vital cadre of government service are also done through the same colonial style competitive examinations. A trend that needs to change now.

It can, therefore, be argued that of the many factors one of them, behind Pakistan’s stagnant progress as a state since partition, is its imperfect bureaucratic structure which has no room for the passionately creative, talented and hard-working individuals. However, the reason for the underperformance of bureaucracy is the absence of incentives such as performance-based criteria of promotion for diligent officers. Instead, the same traditional method of promotion based on the seniority criteria is continuing which demotivates the energetic youth to contribute positively being in government service.

Moreover, governance through the model of Divisional Commissioners and their subordinates is still operating in Pakistan which invalidates the basis of the democratically-elected Local Body Government system at the grassroots level. In Pakistan, an Assistant Commissioner or Deputy Commissioner enjoys more legally-authorized powers than an elected mayor of an area. Therefore, in the current era, a huge part of the youth eagerly desires to qualify CSS in order to get the same power and enjoy the same perks that have successfully been kept intact by our colonially influenced governance system.

Furthermore, despite being not so strong financially, the bureaucrats in the country still receive VIP protocol and enjoy manifold perquisites. The life-styles of bureaucrats are entirely different from that of other working classes. Bureaucrats are entitled to government residence, family medical allowance, children education allowance, transport allowance and a number of other monetary benefits. In other words, bureaucrats in Pakistan still live that life which the English colonizers had left behind while leaving the subcontinent. It is quite evident that such a huge lifestyle gap, between Pakistan’s common working community and the bureaucratic elites of Pakistan, has been polarizing the society into two classes; ruling bourgeoisies (bureaucrats) and ruled proletariats (common citizens).

The structure of Pakistan’s administrative bureaucracy is outdated and ineffective in its working and needs complete overhauling. Decentralization of power at the grassroots level is very important for the promotion of democratic norms and values, but missing in Pakistan because the country’s bureaucracy holds a major chunk of administrative powers which are legally to be exercised by the elected local officials. Just look at the Western states around the world, they have transferred these administrative powers to the democratically elected governors, mayors and town councils who can efficaciously and efficiently perform their duties.

However, there was an outcry of Civil Service reforms, but lacked a practical approach. In the previous government of Imran Khan, a committee for Civil Service Reforms was formed under the chairmanship of Dr. Ishrat Hussain – Advisor to Prime Minister Imran Khan for Institutional Reforms & Austerity. The committee was tasked to carry out comprehensive and sustainable changes in the existing bureaucratic structure. The committee has forwarded its recommendations like, competent people should be recruited based on their educational qualification instead of just one competitive assessment and performance-based criteria for promotion or demotion should be utilized in the government institutions so that qualified professionals join civil bureaucracy with the passion to serve the nation. Along with such reforms, decolonization of English mindset in the current bureaucratic structure is also extremely important for everlasting national success.

Muhammad Usama Khalid is an Associate Research Fellow at Balochistan Think Tank Network (BTTN), Quetta. He is a graduate of NDU, Islamabad. He can be contacted at [email protected]  [email protected]

Muhammad Usama Khalid

Muhammad Usama Khalid is an Associate Research Fellow at Balochistan Think Tank Network (BTTN), Quetta. He is a graduate of NDU, Islamabad. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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