How student protests breathed new life into Bangladeshi bureaucracy

A step in the right direction

Zohra Akhter

Politics, Society and culture | South Asia

12 November 2018

The Bangladeshi youth’s disruption of a dysfunctional decades-old system is a milestone for good governance in the country, writes Zohra Akhter.

On 4 October 2018, Bangladesh repealed its dysfunctional 46-year-old quota system in the civil service. This abolition was the outcome of a student movement that had started earlier in the year.

Civil service, or bureaucracy, is a fundamental institution of the modern state. The development of effective bureaucracy in Bangladesh was crippled for decades by an unjustified and disproportionate quota system in its civil servant recruitment process.

On 5 September 1972, a quota system in the civil service was introduced for the first time. The Ministry of Cabinet Affairs reserved 30 per cent of posts for freedom fighters in the 1971 liberation war of Bangladesh, 10 per cent for war-affected women, 40 per cent for different districts and finally only 20 per cent posts based on merit.

This system was reformed on several occasions that saw allocation on merit rise from 20 per cent to 44 per cent. However, 56 per cent of posts were still reserved for different groups, including 30 per cent for the children and grandchildren of freedom fighters, 10 per cent for women, 10 per cent for different districts, five per cent for members of minority communities and one per cent for people with disabilities.

Moreover, in 2010, the government decided to keep posts reserved under the freedom fighters’ quota vacant unless they could be filled by the freedom fighters’ descendants. Recent datareleased by the Bangladesh Public Service Commission shows that between 2012 and 2014, 63 per cent, 37 per cent, and 84 per cent of these posts remained vacant thanks to the government decision.

Political scientist Kamal Uddin Ahmed says the neglect of merit is the biggest flaw in the quota system, making it “irrational, unsound, flawed, and non-transparent.”

In addition, this arrangement preserved a discriminatory and unfair system for a long time. People under the age of 35 constitute two-thirds of the total population of Bangladesh and unemployment has reached staggering levels. Between 2016-2017, a total of 2,677,000 people were unemployed. In the same year, among university graduates, 11.2 per cent were unemployed.

In this context, the civil service’s 56 per cent quota discriminates against a large number of young graduates waiting to enter the job market. In the words of Al Mamun, one of the leaders of the quota reform protest, “due to the quota system, 56 per cent of the jobs are set aside for five per cent of the country’s population. And 95 per cent of the people can compete for the 44 per cent.”

Of course, the people of Bangladesh are truly indebted to the freedom fighters who fought valiantly and sacrificed their lives for the country’s independence. This is why nobody challenged the quota system when it was first introduced in 1972.

But since Bangladesh was liberated on 16 December 1971, it is common sense that by the mid-1990s there would be hardly any freedom fighters left to enter the public service. Indeed, the maximum age limit for entering the public service is 32.

To then extend the freedom fighter quota to children and grandchildren in 1997 was unjustified. As Professor Musleh Uddin Ahmed says, “after 47 years of independence, reserving seats in a merit-based public service examination for the children of freedom fighters doesn’t make much sense. There are many other ways to honour our freedom fighters.”

The structural discrimination of merit enabled decade after decade of government to perpetuate the unjust system for political gain. In any country that lacks democracy and good governance, a weak civil bureaucracy is surely a key to preserving power by any ruling party. A dysfunctional quota system lets incumbent governments dish out jobs to people of their liking, thus reinforcing age-old patron-client relationships.

Since independence, the list of freedom fighters has been changed six times by subsequent governments. It clearly raised questions about the transparency of the process.  Moreover, several investigations have identified a number of high government officials with false certificates of freedom fighters.

The unfairness and the lack of transparency surrounding the quotas in the civil service examination galvanised student protests in early 2018. Thousands of students from different universities across the country took to the streets chanting quota-reform slogans.

On 5 February, students submitted a memorandum consisting of a five-point demand. Their primary demand was to allocate 90 per cent of posts on merit. They argued that the system goes against the spirit of Article 29(1) of the Constitution of Bangladesh, which ensures “equality of opportunity for all citizens in respect of employment or office in the service of the Republic.”

This meant public service quotas would be circumscribed to 10 per cent from the existing 56 per cent. In line with Article 28(4) of the Constitution, students suggested allocating this 10 per cent quota to members of the underprivileged sections of the society. They also called for filling up the vacant posts under different quotas through the merit list and cessation of special recruitment examinations under certain quotas.

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Initially, this memorandum failed to make any headway. Then, starting in April, protests intensified with demonstrations and sit-in programmes on all university campuses across the country.

The government used different coercive tactics in an attempt to dismantle the student movement. Police arrested a large number of protesters, used tear gas, and fired rubber bullets on the protesting students leaving more than hundreds of them injured.

Faced with the escalation of protests and demonstrations, the government promised to give the proposal serious thought. This was successful at quelling the unrest – for a while. But when no tangible outcomes were seen in subsequent months, students remobilised to drive their demands home.

This time it seemed the movement would go out of the control. There was hardly any choice left for the government but to capitulate to calls for reform. On 4 October 2018, the Ministry of Public Administration finally abolished the 46-year-old quota system.

The abolition is considered a milestone for good governance in Bangladesh, especially for the development of an efficient bureaucracy. But because the government has completely repealed the system without reserving any quota for members of minority communities and people with disabilities, it is likely to create more hurdles to the progress of these groups. These consequences have yet to unfold.

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