Political pickings

September 20, 2020

In the Anita Turab case, the SC had laid down some lucid principles in order to safeguard the civil servants from being politicised

Prime minister presides over meeting on civil service reforms 2020.

Many Pakistanis feel that years of misconduct, political manipulation and corruption have rendered Pakistan’s civil bureaucracy incapable of effective governance and provision of public services. The lack of security for bureaucratic tenure has aggravated the situation further.

The disregard for their tenure, has wreaked havoc on the government’s management structure. It is pertinent to note that while most civil servants have been facing uncertainty regarding their tenure – there are also a number of bureaucrats who enjoy long postings on prized postings of their choice, allegedly due to their close connections with the ruling elite. It is an undeniable fact that Pakistani bureaucracy is extremely politicised from low-level bureaucrats such as patwaris and tehsildars all to the way to the elite Pakistan Administrative Services.

Civil servants say that despite a federal cabinet committee being in place to keep an eye on transfers and posting of the key bureaucrats in accordance with the rules and regulations, assignments are being changed frequently without any care for their tenure, and in sheer violation of the famous Supreme Court’s order in the Anita Turab case.

Sources say the cabinet committee was bypassed during the spate of transfers in the federal and Punjab governments which saw the chief secretary, IGPs, CCPOs, three health secretaries and secretaries for interior, commerce and cabinet replaced.

Calling the insecurity of the civil servants’ tenure a core issue facing the bureaucracy nowadays, Shumail Ahmed Khawaja, a former federal secretary, is of the view that “reasonable security of term for civil servants is essential for reliable delivery of services by them.” If a civil servant remains in a fix all the time with regard to the security of their incumbency, it surely affects his performance”, says Khawaja. “If a Damocles sword keeps hanging on the civil servant’s head, it will surely marginalise his performance”, he adds. Khawaja necessitates a subtle sense of security which boosts their self-esteem, provides assurance and infuses courage to say no to illegal and unlawful orders by elected officials.

Khawaja says an arbitrary exercise of executive authority for posting and transfers on a mass scale, is not only perilous for the smooth and effective working of the bureaucracy, but also destructive for the self-esteem of the civil servants, which erodes public confidence in the system. For him it is tantamount to undermining their lawful authority, as well as the writ of the government.

“At present, the morale of the bureaucrats is at a low ebb”, he says. The current practice is in contradiction of fundamental norms of good governance. “It also constitutes contempt of court inasmuch as it is a blatant breach of the dicta handed down by the apex court of Pakistan in the Anita Turab case”, says Khawaja.

Khawaja says rarely have governments adhered to the parameters set by the Supreme Court for posting and transfers of civil servants to safeguard their tenure, and to protect the bureaucracy from politicization.

He maintained that the culmination of this sordid state of affairs is due to the utter disregard of the international best practices as well as non-adherence to the fundamental norms of good governance.

While informing the TNS, he recalls one of his briefings made to the government at the highest level in 2008, he had alluded to this core challenge of governance and the dilema of civil servants by citing and displaying images of the incumbency boards of some strategically significant positions in Punjab which then reflected the transfer status of nearly 30 education secretaries during 31 years and reshuffling of 24 P & D secretaries in 23 years. Likewise, in a span of 14 years, 13 health secretaries and as many as 6 IT secretaries over a period of 7 years were reassigned their duties in the province of Punjab,” says Shamail Ahmed Khawaja.

An additional secretary in the Punjab government, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to discuss the matter publicly, says bureaucrats across Pakistan carry on their day-to-day work under the shadow of sheer uncertainty. “Not a single bureaucrat is certain about their future… they don’t know when they may be transferred, all of a sudden to a new assignment or made an OSD”, he says. Because of this situation, he says, the subordinates often don’t take the directives of their superiors seriously and are lax in performance of their duties.

He says the situation has affected the consistency of the government’s policies and plans, as provincial secretaries across the country, are frequently changed either because of dissatisfaction of their respective ministers or their reluctance to take on responsibilities they are assigned.

In the Punjab in particular, instant transfers and postings of commissioners, deputy commissioners, assistant commissioners, city and district police officers have become a routine”, he says, adding that “there is not a single officer who has been permitted to complete his term.”

In the Anita Turab case, the SC had laid down some lucid principles in order to safeguard the civil servants from being politicised.

The SC’s order clearly states that appointments, removals, and promotions must be made in accordance with the law and the rules. Where no law or rule exists and the matter has been left to an authority’s discretion, such discretion must be exercised in a structured, transparent, and reasonable manner and in the public interest.

Where the tenure for a posting has been specified in the law or rules, such tenure must be respected and cannot be varied, except for compelling reasons, which should be recorded in writing and will be subject to judicial review.

As per the orders, civil servants owe their first and foremost allegiance to the law and the Constitution. They are not bound to obey orders from superiors which are illegal or are not in accordance with accepted practices and rules.

Requesting not to be named, a bureaucrat in Peshawar Customs Department says most of the transfers and postings of civil servants in the province are politically motivated. Even a patwari or naib tehsildar cannot be posted without the prior consent of the concerned MPA or MNA, says the officer. However, he says, the situation is better as compared to the Punjab.


The writer is a senior journalist and can be reached at

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Political pickings