Quota Reform in Government Jobs: Upholding meritocracy over mediocracy

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DU students demo at Shahbag for quota reforms. Photo - DC/UNB

That the quota system for public services/government jobs would be abolished - - the announcement made by the prime minister on 11 April 2018 in the parliament amidst the country-wide students’ protest against the existing quota system - - came as a surprise. Though it’s been a welcome move by the government, the latest cabinet meeting held on 7 May 2018 didn’t have any discussion on publishing the gazette notification abolishing the quota system. However, we are hopeful that the PM would stick to her decision or proclamation which has turned out to be a historic step in upholding meritocracy and underscoring the need of making affirmative action (special privileges) for the minority communities like ethnic groups and physically challenged or disadvantaged segments of the society. I reckon the government is trying their best to comply with the decision so that the students’ agitation can’t loom further.

According to the interview of the former cabinet secretary and advisor to the caretaker government Dr Akbar Ali Khan (published in The Prothom Alo on 11 April 2018), the civil service quota system was introduced in 1972 through an interim policy issued by an administrative order. This is quite unlikely that it hasn’t been revised over the years. It was supposed to be revised every 5 years. He said, “There are now 258 types of quota in government jobs, and this system is called quota-on-quota which is very difficult.” However, when Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman introduced this system, the reality of a war-ravaged country suffering from extreme poverty was totally different. At that time taking into account the people’s sufferings and economic deprivation, he had to introduce a quota system allocating 40% of the jobs to the districts other than Dhaka; 30% to the freedom fighters who lost nine months of their educational life fighting for the country; 10% to the war-affected women; and the rest 20% to the candidates to be appointed on merit.

In 1973 the then government formed the first Administrative & Services Reorganization Committee headed by Professor Muzzafar Ahmed Chowdhury who recommended abolishing the quota system in order to build a reliable and effective civil service. Since then several public service commissions and public service reform committees have been formed, and all the committees including one during the present government’s regime made similar recommendations objecting to the quota system which appears to be an impediment to making a pro-people and result-oriented civil service in Bangladesh.

However, the present quota reform movement has been supported by the students, guardians, jobseekers, academics, university teachers, professionals and civil society members as well. We wonder why our lawmakers didn’t ever think of revisiting/revising the system and also think of the future of the jobless youth who eventually took to the streets expressing their pent-up emotion, frustration and indignation by protesting against the existing quota system choking up their prospects. Isn’t it unbecoming that during the protest the law-enforcing agencies or intelligence agencies failed to gauge the students’ sentiments and the intensity of a logical demand? Likewise, our top bureaucrats could neither address the problem nor give any suggestions/solution in a timely fashion until the prime minister herself intervened in the matter. It seems that the civil servants and some of the ruling party lawmakers remained indifferent to the agitating students’ demand.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) report (2014), 47% of Bangladeshi graduates are jobless whereas the rate of unemployment in India is 33%; in Pakistan 28% and in Sri Lanka 7.8%. World Bank’s lead economist Mr Zahid Hussain said, “The absence of quality education and a skilled labour force are the main causes of youth unemployment in Bangladesh.” He also termed this phenomenon - the students’ protest against the discriminatory quota system in govt. jobs - a “social time bomb” which the government needs to prevent from exploding in future.

It’s worrying that the current unemployment situation of Bangladesh is deteriorating day by day because thousands of graduates are entering into the job market every year but they are not getting appropriate jobs according to their merit. Consequently, they are to remain jobless. The Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD) in the latest budget recommendations on 17 April 2018 noted that more than 34% of the youth labour force with tertiary education remained unemployed last fiscal year.

According to the latest Labour Force Survey (LFS) by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), the rate of unemployment among persons with education of up to tertiary level increased 11.2 percent in fiscal year 2016-2017 from 9 percent a year earlier. This unemployment rate has increased at a time when higher numbers of graduates are passing out of universities, and the country’s economy is experiencing steady growth (The Daily Star on 27 April 2018). In this connection, Mr Zahid Hussain - the lead economist of World Bank Dhaka office – made a significant comment on the quality of education our universities impart to the graduates and the requirements of the job market. He said, “This is a structural mismatch. When we talk to relatives they say there are not enough jobs. But when we talk to the entrepreneurs they say we don’t find skilled people we want to hire.” He also put emphasis on the use of demographic dividend so that the young educated people don’t become a liability for the nation.

It’s high time the government opened a Ministry of Human Resource Development as our neighbouring country India has already had such a ministry. The objective of this ministry is to assess the human resource requirement for existing and potential industrial sectors and to share the requirement with the ministry of education in order to balance the socio-economic fabric.  Simultaneously we need to develop our educational system based on the requirement of industries. This is how we could overcome the current situation of joblessness.

As the prime minister’s announcement has bolstered up the morale of the youth, the bureaucrats should work proactively and promptly on issuing a gazette notification on the abolition of quota in government jobs. Otherwise, their frustration will mount further, and the unemployment rate will go beyond all records. If the government doesn’t take up a sustainable strategy to generate employment at a larger scale in both public and private sectors, the first-time eligible young voters (about 23 millions) - many of whom are frustrated jobseekers – might make the election-equation difficult for the ruling party.

Sheikh Nahid Neazy, Associate Professor Department of English Stamford University Bangladesh

  • DhakaCourier
  • Vol 34
  • Issue 46

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