Civil service : Half a century of non-performance

The government recently celebrated the golden jubilee of Nepali civil service with relative pomp that included more than a ritualistic message from the Prime Minister that, like the speeches of both the Deputy Prime Ministers, exhorted the civil servants to imbibe a more responsive work culture befitting the commitments of the new dispensation of Loktantra. While the ceremony’s theme ‘People-oriented Civil Administration for Loktantra’ was quite apt for the occasion, most of the serving and retired officials present there had heard such harangues before and seemed largely unimpressed.

That civil service has not delivered is evident from the fact that notwithstanding the glamour of a few urban centres, the country’s overall socio-economic situation is becoming increasingly combustible. Population is growing at an unprecedented rate, doubling every 26 years. Seventy-eight per cent of its labour force remains in agriculture. Agricultural under-employment is quite severe, 47 per cent according to the Tenth Plan, due mainly to ever decreasing per capita agricultural land availability, 0.15 ha in 1998 as against 0.6 ha. in 1954, coupled with continued low intensity of production. The excess labour cannot migrate to non-farm sector, not only because the latter has remained minuscule, but also because only 20 per cent of jobs in the manufacturing sector, otherwise the biggest of employer of labour, are for the unskilled. While there has been an exodus of labour in recent years leading to a big spurt in remittances, the benefit has gone mainly to the three traditionally privileged groups of Bahuns, Chhetris and Newars. Two Nepals, including that of the small minority of the rich and powerful, are in the making with the inherent explosiveness of the situation looming ever larger.

Referring to the indifference of administration regarding the problems of society, a paper presented to the Civil Service Day meeting of 2005 had described it as a “great paradox” in that “it has steadily grown in qualified manpower and geographical outreach, even as the country’s situation has gone from bad to worse.” The basic problem lies in the lack of professionalism in the approach to their job and of a structurally driven sense of accountability in their dealing with people.

Irrespective of the so-called “citizen charters”, etc., one only needs to visit an office to find out about the officials’ insolence, the worst being, the Mal Adda (Land Revenue Office) where officials are approachable only through middlemen (lekhandas). Ninety per cent of formal government structures do not work according to their mandate. ‘Source and force’ continue to remain the prime mover in making them deliver.

This overwhelming sense of impunity on the part of civil servants results from the fact that service delivery — theoretically the rationale for their existence — has never been the criterion for their upward mobility. The bureaucracy remains a largely introvert organisation making status quo its overall ethos. There is no premium on innovation, which is generally viewed as threatening for the peers and bosses and is effectively discouraged.

Often, corrupt politicians in power use the employees as their surrogates for executing their sinister designs, further adding to their sense of impunity. It is worth recalling here that the finance minister in one of the pre-2002 coalition governments, when accused of corruption in Tribhuvan Airport’s customs office, had the impudence to declare in the parliament that “corruption was there in the past, is there today and will continue to be there tomorrow” and he walked away scot-free.

Bureaucratic tentacles often work as a drag on people’s development needs. Nepal’s forests were restored to their pristine glory only after the control over them was taken away from the clutches of the corrupt forest officials and was handed over to the local users themselves through a change in forestry legislation in 1988 that was required as one of the conditionalities by the World Bank for the Structural Adjustment Loan at that time.

Fifty years of Nepali civil service, thus, means half a century of its non-performance. Making it “people oriented”, thus, requires much more than mere occasional exhortations by a few ministers and the chief civil servant. It requires nothing less than the fundamental revision of civil service rules so that professionalism, innovativeness and delivery of services constitute the main criteria for the upward mobility of civil servants. In addition, it has to be complemented by total devolution of authority to the stakeholders themselves, because no external agency can ever deliver services better than the beneficiaries themselves. The political leaders themselves must learn from the success of the community forestry and go for legislative changes rather than satisfy themselves with their oratory to have the civil servants deliver better.

Shrestha is a former additional secretary