Kazi Habibul Awal, former senior secretary and writer of several important books including ‘Trajectory of a Judicial Officer’, was secretary of the law ministry, the ministry of religious affairs and the defence ministry during his career in the civil service. In an interview, he talks about relations between officials of the republic and people’s representatives, their responsibility and their accountability.
QHow should relations be between representatives of the public administration, that is, government officials, and people’s representatives, that is, ministers, members of parliament and others? In recent times they have sharply deviated from the ideal relationship that should have been in place. Why?
In terms of rank, the elected representatives are above government officials. It is expected that a local or central public administration official will behave accordingly. In a political government system, government officials in many cases have to be extra considerate and respectful towards elected political seniors. But if any side misbehaves or crosses limits of decorum, it is only natural that the other side will lose patience.
The Barishal incident is an exception, not a regular occurrence. Bureaucrats in government service or people’s representatives, no matter who they are, must know the limits of their responsibilities and authority. Only then can such untoward incidents be avoided.
QYou were in a senior position of the public administration. Can you share from your experience how can unwarranted interference of people’s representatives be tackled? Does such behaviour spark off animosity or opportunity?
Elected representatives are very close to the people. Government officials must understand this proximity. The people’s representatives often take up issues of the local people, lobby for them or make recommendations in the parliament , or approach government officials on their behalf. There is no harm in being understanding, cooperative and sympathetic about such matters, if it is within the laws and the rules.
If any intervention of the people’s representative is unjust or contrary to the law, this can be explained so the representatives will be able to understand the matter. Even so, in certain cases, they may resort to excesses. This just has to be written off as ‘system loss’. If these unjust interventions are justifiably rejected, there is legal protection for the government officials.
QRecently in the Barishal incident, the administration and people’s representatives were at loggerheads over the attack on the UNO’s residence. There were cases and counter cases. The UNO and the OC were transferred. What would you say about the incident?
The entire matter was unwarranted. I do not know the inside story, but from the outside it was dramatic. It has tarnished people’s respect and trust for politics and the public administration. An objective and detailed inquiry into the matter is imperative. If any side or both sides are proven to be responsible for the incident, measures must be taken, even if these are symbolic measures. This will set precedence for posterity.
QAfter the incident, the admin cadre issued a statement terming the Barishal mayor and his supporters as ‘miscreants’. Can public administration officials use such language in their statement?
I did not read the admin cadre’s statement in full. They may know from which perspective they used the word ‘miscreant’. At the same time, it is not impossible that a bureaucrat, a ruler or a people’s representative behaves like a miscreant. Going back in history, calling the Roman emperor Nero or Caligula a ‘miscreant’ would be a gross understatement.
QMany allege that the attitude of the public administration and the law enforcement underwent a change after the 2018 election. Many of them have openly said, “We are the ones who brought Awami League to power.” As a former public administration official, how do you see that?
It is imperative that an election be free and fair. A strong opposition is necessary in parliament, not a faux opposition. Democratic good governance requires discussion and debate, continued practice to build up an ideal political culture. This consolidates democracy. Politicians can become trusted and respected rulers of the people if they are prudent, astute and responsible. This eliminates the possibility of a third force entering the scene.
Public administration officials are servants of the people. They function under specific rules and regulations. Do they have any legal protection to reject the attempts of any partisan or non-partisan government to use them for their corrupt purposes? If there is such a safeguard, why don’t they use it? In the past, during the BNP and Ershad governments, the public administration officers risen up together in outright protest.
Instead of ‘public servant’ or ‘public employee’, the bureaucrats came up with the term ‘officer’ to satiate their egos. But the public administration officers should see themselves as being there to serve the people. They must be fully cognizant of their duties, responsibilities, their authority, their jurisdiction and so on.
Public servants are constantly warding off unjust pressures and requests. They have adequate protection. Even so, there are instances where a public servant has been unjustly transferred for not succumbing to pressure, has been harassed. This just has to be accepted as ‘system loss’.
The aggressive stand taken unitedly by the protesting public administration officers during Ershad’s rule is not the best example. That was not the 1971 war of independence. The intermittent and open participation of public officials in political movements does not bode well for the future of politics.
QYou were the law secretary. We have good laws in the country, but these are not implemented. How far is the public administration responsible for this? And how far is the political leadership responsible?
Laws are on paper. The implementation or application of the law is in people’s hands. If the government officials who are in charge of this implementation or application are not well versed in the law, if they do not have the appropriate training, if there is no compulsion or accountability to apply the law, if the government officials do not have the sincerity or integrity to apply the law, if the government does not have the commitment, then the laws on paper will simply remain on paper.
Journalists and all citizens have the right to any official information, as long as it is not a threat to state security. Even so, the government files cases against journalists under the Official Secrets Act of 1923 and the Digital Security Act of 2018. Isn’t this contrary to the right to information and people’s fundamental rights?
All information cannot be a threat to state security. If any official or unofficial information is not a threat to the state, journalists should have the full right to gather that information and make it public. They legally have that right.
Many are not properly aware of the actual meaning and clauses of the 1923 Official Secrets Act. This law was misused against a journalist recently. The law was not at fault. The error was in the application of the law. The state and the government are not one and the same. This must be understood. It would be better if the government was more tolerant in this regard. The conflicting elements between the Right to Information Act of 2009 and the Digital Security Act of 2018, need to be scrutinised. We regularly see journalists digging out news at their own expense and effort and then publishing it, which ultimately benefits the state, the government and the people. Then again, the existence of yellow journalism cannot be denied either.
QRegarding the case against Prothom Alo journalist Rozina Islam, you said the government had mixed up spying and official confidentiality. Such incidents often occur. How can this be resolved?
The Official Secrets Act of 1923 was formulated in context of World War I. It was made to thwart espionage so that secret information regarding important state installations was not leaked out to enemy states. This law is not applicable to simply any information. The 2009 Right to Information Act lists the information that cannot be provided. So there are no existing confusions and apprehensions about secret official information.
The problem can be resolved by enacting the law afresh in a simpler manner. Even then, there can be intentional or unintentional errors in applying any clause of a law. If that cannot be immediately rectified by administrative intervention, then the higher court can be immediately approached for remedy.
QYou have authored a book, ‘Trajectory of a Judicial Officer’ based on your experience in the administration. In this book you have pinpointed the strengths and weaknesses of the administration, the judicial system and politics. But many allege that the administration is no longer in the condition that you left it in. Do you think so too?
I began my career in civil service from 1981. My field of work covered law, judiciary and administration. In the book I described the experiences from various angles. I do not think that administration is not where it was. There are transient changes in policies and principals of the administration in light of changing politics down the times. There is nothing new in work being done at the behest of the boss.
QPublic administration officers are posted to senior positions through their experience and training. But politicians do not have any such training. Doesn’t this create problems in running the administration?
There can be orientation courses for the honourable ministers, members of parliament and mayors. The speakers at these courses can include incumbent or former judges of the Supreme Court, incumbent or former attorneys general, the auditor general, eminent lawyers, former cabinet secretaries, as well as local and foreign professors of government and political science. This will facilitate the elected people’s representatives to gain expertise and experience in their respective fields and responsibilities by such interactions. This can also help in reducing the distance and friction with the bureaucrats.
QThere is not so much discussion about the corruption of government officials as there is about the corruption of politicians. Yet a recent news report reveals that 80 per cent of the owners of homes in Begumpara in Canada are former civil servants. What are your comments as a former civil servant?
Corruption is natural in a capitalist economy. There is corruption in politics. In the existing political paradigm, practicing politics is not possible without vast sums of money. Money can be earned through corruption. But the money earned by politicians is spent on the people.
The corruption of the bureaucrats is appalling. It is self-centred consumerism. They make the lives of the service recipients, hell. But the government’s lack of political will and firm commitment is to a great extent responsible for the corruption of the bureaucrats. Politicians are transitory. Bureaucrats are permanent. The government’s authority is tied up in the files of the bureaucrats. Power is the source of corruption. That is why the corruption of civil servants is more visible. But not all politicians are corrupt. All public servants are not corrupt either.