Victims by birth

Courier Briefing
Thursday, March 8th, 2018


One must almost pity the advocates of quota abolition in Bangladesh. Those who are actually affected suffer due to a system that is meant to discriminate against them by dint of their birth – it doesn’t matter if they worked hard over the course of their lives and attained a certain level of skill or proficiency. At the margin, or if they are competing for one remaining position and it is reserved under the quota distribution system, no amount of hard work or even inherent ability will help them if they weren’t born in the right household.


To a certain extent, we may accept such misfortune on the grounds of affirmative action – when the state acts proactively to guard against social discord or the pernicious effects of discrimination. As the benefits are usually meant to accrue in favour of marginalised groups, we may assume other less salient but nevertheless entrenched features within societies are playing out to the advantage of those who lose out from the quota system.


Yet the advocates of abolition, which itself is a bit of an extreme demand, are also to be pitied for their sense of timing. The earliest bouts of protest against the system, now known as the Anti Quota Protests of 2013, were protests against “incumbent government policies regarding jobs in the government sector” in the country. They began in the same location that saw the 2013 Shahbag protests in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Although initially confined to the locality of Shahbag and Dhaka University campus, they eventually spread to other parts of Bangladesh. The protests attained popularity as students of different universities in various parts of the country brought out processions of their own while demonstrating in solidarity with the main protest movement and pressing forward with similar demands. Yet they couldn’t avoid being overwhelmed by the concurrent protests against the war criminals in a politically charged year in Bangladesh.


This year, a students rights group organised a protest programme at all educational institutions across the country demanding a reformation of existing quota system in various government recruitment process including BCS (Bangladesh Civil Service) examinations. Yet their protests coincided with a series of programmes called by the BNP to protest against the jailing of their chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia- and inevitably got branded  as razakars and became politically coloured.


Good intentions


Every public institution must necessarily reflect the nation, in not only its diversity portfolio but also its objectives and aspirations. To that end, the quota system in Bangladesh is a desired policy prescription, that not only takes forward the social objective of providing equal opportunity to all racial and ethnic groups, but also sustains the recognition that those who fought for and delivered this nation must never fall through its cracks into the ranks of the exploited. There is a debt we must repay them, even if through their children. But not also through their grandchildren.


The current system’s most debilitating aspect is by way of its disproportionate generosity towards the freedom fighters. Reportedly 30 percent of posts allocated through the BCS system are reserved under the FF quota – including children and grandchildren. The fact that most freedom fighters are now deceased, or well past retirement age means the vast majority of such posts would now have to be filled by their children and grandchildren.


A major problem with the freedom fighters’ quota in recruitment through the BCS exam is that many of the reserved posts for freedom fighters’ children and grandchildren remain vacant for a long time – after all, they are a logically dwindling proportion of the population, but because these positions are reserved, it is not possible to recruit other competent candidates based on merit into these positions. This serious flaw in the system must be removed by allowing for recruiting candidates in those posts based on merit.


Most of all, the quota system can’t be there forever and should be reviewed from time to time. According to Dr Akbar Ali Khan, a former adviser to a caretaker government, there might be a quota reserved for freedoms fighters’ children but that should only be applied to those who still get allowance and were given accommodation facilities from the government.


In his book titled Administrative Reforms in Bangladesh (1998), Mohammad Mohabbat Khan put forth a set of recommendations to ensure merit-based selection in the public service. One of them is, as he puts it, “measure(s) should be taken to progressively limit the scope of quota reservation system with the objective fitting eventual withdrawal within a specified time period.”


The FF quota allowance makes it almost inherent to the system that periodic reviews and reforms would need to be carried out – after all, unlike women and all the different districts and disabled people or minority groups, freedom fighters and their kin cannot be presumed to exist in perpetuity, so to speak. Already in Bangladesh, we are well past the time for it.


Kamaluddin Ahmed, in his article “Quota System for Civil Service” published in The Daily Star on July 18, 2008, stressed the importance of re-fixing the quota for the descendants of freedom fighters from 30 percent to a maximum of 10 percent. Nevermind if they are deserving or not. The mere dwindling in their numbers, which is also unlikely to ever reverse itself, means it is also mathematically unsustainable.


Our prevailing quota system, in its present manifestation, possibly shares no parallels internationally in the world today, except in Pakistan (where a whopping 92.5 percent of public sector jobs are allocated through the quota system). Which, as a cursory glance at history will tell us, is not exactly a very clever option for us Bangladeshis.


People who participated in the Second World War as US military personnel were rehabilitated by the GI (General Infantry) Bill of 1944. What benefits did they get? Low-interest loans for housing, low-interest loans to start businesses, payments for attending schools and colleges, and unemployment benefits. Through this bill, millions of GI’s were empowered through education and trainings to be well-to-do citizens and to be worthy leaders of the USA.


The quota system also leads to the phenomenon of “fake freedom fighters”. In 2016, Prothom Alo reported that one former commander of freedom fighters (muktijoddha commander) provided fake freedom fighters’ certificate to 19 people of his village in exchange for a large sum so that they could get jobs in the police force. There have also been instances of government officers posing as freedom fighters.


In 2014, five high-ranking government officials’ freedom fighters’ certificates were revoked because they had obtained the certificates showing fake documents. Three of them were secretaries, one was a joint secretary and the other was chairman of the Privatisation Commission. Chances are that without a genuine freedom fighters’ list, the freedom fighters’ quota in BCS and other competitive exams will continue to be misused. But this is just one aspect of the problem.


The Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) defines quota in a policy report titled, “Quotas and Targets: How Do They Affect Diversity Progress?” Published in June 2015, the report states, “Quotas and other affirmation action policies aim to improve equality of opportunity and increase diversity by addressing the under-representation of minority groups in a range of different domains, such as politics, higher education and management.”


Historically and internationally, support for affirmative action has sought to achieve goals such as bridging inequalities in employment and pay, increasing access to education, promoting diversity, and redressing apparent past wrongs, harms, or hindrances.


The quota system has been introduced not only for BCS and government jobs, but from primary to university admission. In all, there are now 257 types of quotas in the country. The information shows that the quota system that was introduced to reduce discrimination has now become the means of creating discrimination.


There is a quota system in the other parts of the world to bring the backward classes forward. In other countries, the quota system is re-evaluated even after the expiry of the quota. It is therefore subject to the kind of monitoring and evaluation that ensures it remains responsive and relevant to the context of the times to which it is applied. But ever since its introduction in Bangladesh till today, the system of quotas has not been subjected to any review process.


The demand for reform of the current quota system in the country is long. Earlier, both the Public Service Commission and the Public Administration Reform Commission recommended the rationalisation of the quota system but nothing was done.


The demands of the agitating youth are to reduce the quota system from 56 to 10 percent, or that if there is no eligible candidate in quota, recruitment from the merit list in the vacant post, not using the quota facility in recruitment examination more than once and not taking any special recruitment test in quota and set the uniform mark and age limits for everyone in the field of employment. Now waiting to see how much sincerity government will show to the logical demands of younger generations.


Drawing on emotions


Imran Hossain, a master’s student of Persian language and literature in DU, said: “We’re being punished through this quota system. It’s not possible to build Digital Bangladesh by keeping 56% reservation in government recruitment examinations.”


“We’re not against reservation, but want immediate reformation in the system. The government should focus on merit and give opportunity to 90% of general students,” added Imran, a resident of Masterda Surja Sen Hall.


A number of freedom fighters’ children, including current and former student leaders of the ruling party, expressed solidarity with the recent movement and demanded reform of the existing quota system. Similar movements have also taken place in different public universities across the country, including Rajshahi University, Chittagong University, and Jahangirnagar University (JU).


Arefin Sarif, a graduate from Dhaka University, said: “My father is a freedom fighter who is still carrying his arm in a splint. As the son of a freedom fighter, I express my solidarity towards the movement for reforming the quota system. Until this system is changed to a tolerable form, as a nation we will be heading in the wrong direction. My father did not fight against Pakistan to secure a quota privilege in the job market for us, rather they fought for a just society without any discrimination.”


Dhaka University Professor Emeritus Serajul Islam Choudhury said that the government should concentrate on the public service recruitment process to ensure the entrance of meritorious candidates in the service of the country. He said: “The impact of excessive quota in public service may cause serious trouble for the country. The civil service officers run the country. If talented candidates do not come into the government, the country will not perform properly.”


Prof Serajul further said that a significant number of youths in the country were still unemployed while so many posts in public service remained vacant because of quotas, causing anger and frustration among applicants.


Former BPSC member and former JU vice chancellor, Prof Shariff Enamul Kabir said that at present no public service posts remain vacant because of quotas, as the PSC appoints candidates from merit lists to fill those posts. “With the permission of the government, the PSC recruits the candidates from merit lists for vacant posts under the freedom fighters quota,” he said. However, Prof Shariff opined that the existing quota system was due for reform.


DU teacher Prof Anwar Hossain said that the quota system should remain untouched in consideration of freedom fighters and marginalized communities of the country. “I do not think the youth are getting frustrated because of quotas in public services. As long as there are marginalized groups, the quota system should remain. Besides, the freedom fighters quota is recognition for the brave sons of the nation,” he said.


“We need to create more employment opportunities in the country. From our current education system, we can earn a degree with a certificate, but we cannot utilize our learning in the job sector. If we can provide meaningful reform in the education system, our youth will not be frustrated over unemployment.”


The underlying assumption to any quota system is that it is a temporary measure, and at some point when the impacts of past discrimination or negligence no longer hinder progress in the present, such special treatment is no longer necessary. If the need for such special dispensations continue for generations, then clearly, the problem lies somewhere else, and a different solution is called for. Yet the fact that we have by now allowed the quota system to assume the position of one of society’s ‘holy cows’ – beyond reproach and criticism, as shown by yet another High Court judgement this week,  means it continues to gather moss like old rocks. While its victims just grow old, often unemployed.


Additional reporting by Wafiur Rahman

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