Civil servants : The traditional whipping boys

Once a new government comes to power in Nepal, in order to make the people feel its “newness”, they almost always meddle with their traditional whipping boys, the civil servants.

For instance, in 1991, the very first act

of the then Nepali Congress government headed by Girija Prasad Koirala was to

dismiss a large number of mostly senior civil servants through forced retirement, a decision later overturned by the Supreme Court to its immense embarrassment on the ground that the “democratic” government violated the fundamental rights of the victimised officials. While no reason was given for the brazen act at the time, it later became clear that it was essentially meant to remove any possible roadblocks for it to totally immerse itself in corruption. The same leaders continue to figure in the top echelons of the party and keep it alienated from the people.

Lately, the Maoist-led Ministry of General Administration is in the news, once again, for a bureaucracy-related reason. The ministry intends to move hundreds of civil servants ostensibly to bring about a more judicious rotation among them by moving those working in remote locations to more accessible ones and vice versa.

However, given the fact that this government’s parroting mantra has been the building of New Nepal, the

questions arise as to whether the purported move constitutes a priority issue in

the proper management of bureaucracy

to that end.

The question becomes even more pertinent in view of the fact that today, due to the slow but steady development in transport and communication network, the remote areas are no longer so “remote” or physically demanding as in the past and that most such “remote” postings are indeed quite attractive due to relatively hefty “remote area allowances” and the inflated “points” they earn towards their promotion.

The distaste for such remote postings was pronounced during the times of conflict due to the ever present threat of murderous attacks which have since largely subsided with the Maoists joining the government. Nepal’s bureaucracy is often characterized as being a “competent but non-performing entity”.

Under normal conditions, bureaucracy simply does not deliver, despite the fact that they are among the most privileged of people in the country, blessed with such benefits as permanence of tenure and multiple opportunities for training and exposure including that in foreign countries. Thus, while the government officials may suffer from many disabilities, lack of technical competence is no longer one of them.

If the performance of their equivalents in the private sector is any guide, our civil

servants too are possessed of the professional wherewithal to move mountains. But the fact remains that despite the

government officials having traversed across the length and breadth of this country in the garb of “development officials” for decades, the country’s situation mainly in the rural areas have gone only from bad to worse, characterised by widespread and worsening unemployment, stagnating productivity, and poor health and education services among others.

The paradox today is that people are now running away from the rural areas where food is grown to escape hunger. As people see it, most government officials use their postings, no matter where, as opportunities to make a fast buck, because everybody else above and below them seem to be doing the same too.

The immediate challenge in Nepali bureaucracy is, therefore, to create conditions whereby its members deliver. For this, the most crucial move should be to induct professionalism, performance and capacity for innovation as the main criteria for the recruitment and upward mobility of the government officials.

The second most critical intervention should be to redefine their role so that they act more as facilitators and capacity builders in national development. The best example yet in this regard comes from the forestry sector. While the sustained decay of the forests under the very watch of the forest officials had brought the country to the brink of desertification, it was the introduction and empowerment of the forest user groups in 1988 that dramatically reversed the fortunes and restored them to more than their original health.

The forest bureaucrats, once the lords of forests, now run meaningful programmes that build the technical and managerial capacity of the user groups. Redefining the role of the bureaucracy along these lines line across the board should be the priority concern if the government honestly means building New Nepal.

Otherwise it will be the replay of the old adage “If you do not know where you are going, any road will take you there”. And moving the officials from one place to another could be one of them.

Shrestha is former additional secretary