Image via Dawn

There is a popular saying amongst the Tamils, “even if one grazes chicken (which is really a non existent work), it should be grazed in the government”.  Employment in the government sector is coveted for the respect it commands in society and the social security it provides to the individual in terms of permanency and pension benefits. There are other economic and social benefits as well. From the peon to the level of the director, all government employees who are bachelors are able to bargain bigger dowry packages for themselves. Parents who are government officers enjoy a concealed advantage in getting admission in to reputed schools for their children. Perhaps that is why we see the strange contradiction of even the most militant Pongu Thamil and lamp lighting great heroes day student activists, after passing out of their Universities, engage in fast unto death struggles to obtain appointments under the very same government they opposed while in the University! Not only do they gain employment, but also fully imbibe the latent culture of our bureaucracy and turn in to docile servants of their  political masters. These bureaucrats are so much part of our social fabric, in a position to be able to decisively influence community life around them, and we hardly notice them or write about them.

Bureaucracy predates the modern era, of course, but it was not until the late 18th and early 19th centuries that bureaucracy as we currently understand it was established mainly in Europe, and then introduced to other countries through colonial rule. The modern Nation-State required a new mode of power that was capable of managing the increasingly complex task of disciplining society. Foucault argues that the conjuncture of urbanization, a ‘floating population’ (the masses were no longer firmly fixed to feudal estates), and an enormous increase in the scale of the number of people to be supervised or manipulated, necessitated development of disciplinary methods. Furthermore, mass production and rationalization of the economy also required more complex management processes. For the old order, violence, or the threat thereof was the tool used when exercising power. This was costly in a political and economic sense, and more importantly was insufficient to the task. Bringing a rational-legal authority, bureaucracy achieved the same, but now with greater ease. The ascendancy of disciplines in governance and bureaucratic institutions can be seen as a profound shift in how power was wielded.

The theory put forward by Foucault saw its culmination in the Nazi regime in Germany. Coupling legislations with administrative procedures, the Nazi bureaucracy carried out surveillance, documentation, detention and extermination of all marginalized sections of society, including the Jews. True, they did not formulate those policies, but implemented them effectively. Because of this they were named as the “Middle Managers of Murder”.  This finally put to rest other theories that romanticized the modern bureaucracy as an alternative to earlier forms of despotic and aristocratic dominance. Some did argue that because the German bureaucrats shared the values of anti-semitism of their rulers, this was made possible. But after observing the role played by the native bureaucrats within the colonial administrations of the 19th and 20th centuries, it was realized that it was also possible for a  bureaucracy to go against the very interests of its  own class or nationality. In India, for instance, the participation of the several lakhs strong bureaucrats in a non cooperation movement would have got the British Raj packing and returning in a matter of weeks. Instead, not only did they uphold the regime, but also were the principal propagators of the ideology of the supremacy of the colonial masters. They were actually described at that time as the ‘steel frame of the British Empire’.

In the post colonial world, other challenges confronted the masses. The rise of the Nation-State, which at all times “seeks to homogenize its population  in order to consolidate its power”, posed new problems for minority Nations, and governance in general.  Here also, the discriminatory policies in sharing of resources and opportunities, changing demography through State sponsored colonization schemes and  land alienation policies, all were implemented by the bureaucracy. In most cases, by a bureaucracy belonging to the group that was being systematically marginalized and annihilated. This universal characteristic is all the more apparent in the Tamil speaking areas of the North and East in Sri Lanka. There, no writ could be carried out without the collaboration of the Tamil and Muslim bureaucrats. They are the cogs of the machinery that constantly undermines the authority of the Provincial and Local Councils;  they withhold vital information from the people, information that could propel action for justice; they throttle NGOs and Civil Society organizations, which are in the final analysis, the only challenge to the burgeoning power of the State; and indulge in corrupt practices even in extreme situations of managing welfare centers of the Vanni refugees. The most frustrating element is, in the context of the communities that have been seriously affected by a 30 year war, the callousness  displayed by them in utilizing the available resources for development of the people. It is rare to find a government department that utilizes all the allocated funds for the year and does not return them to the Treasury. When an officer is put on the Mat for disobeying (rightly but) to an order of a politician, no solidarity is demonstrated or even expressed by the others of the clan.

Alright, we know the arguments on the other side. “If I don’t tow the line my job is gone and another replaces me”, “Who will look after my family if I lose my job?”, and so on. While describing the reality, these statements also allude to the imperative need   to restore the dignity of the profession of the public service. Does it suffice to remain as servants of their political masters life long? Is it fulfillment enough?  It is time that those in the public service began to re- envision their structure and role.  And an opportunity to do so in an environment of reduced risk has been provided by the LLRC. It speaks of the intense politicization of the bureaucracy and a whole host of other issues pertaining to reconciliation and reconstruction processes.  It might be useful to activate the Trade Unions of the higher level officers which facilitate meetings to discuss the recommendations of the LLRC, mapping the constraints faced in the implementation from their point of view. The conclusions of these discussions could form the basis of a possible negotiation process with the head of State and other stakeholders. The aim here is to create a bureaucracy that abides by a general code of ethics that is formulated on the basis of Universal Human rights, and is autonomous in that sense. At the minimum, this discussion amongst fellow comrades could bring forth new awareness on their own identity and institutional relationships.

The growth of the present form of bureaucracy was in conjunction with the transition from Monarchy to a Capitalist Democracy. Its “up focused” and “impersonal” attributes are a reflection of this history. In the 21st century, with the Arab Spring and Occupy movements of the world and the advent of new strands of the ideology of democracy, this form and structure is bound to change. However, the question is whether to wait for those change to occur, or, be the architects of that change. Bureaucrats also have social responsibilities which they have to carry, lest they be called “Middle Managers of Ethnic Cleansing” at a later date.

  • Although it is commonly thought that only the judiciary, press and legislature form a check on the executive; an independent civil service is a critical factor in ensuring the liberty of citizens.

    Civil servants are responsible for the day-to-day administration of the state and need to resolve questions arising in their work by reference to the constitution and their own conscience.

    They should not be held to the dictates of politicians who may be driven by narrow partisan aims and who may pervert the administration to favour there supporters and penalise their opponents; which is what happened in Germany and is happening today in Sri Lanka.

    In fact, the people who actually run the country in a functioning democracy are the civil servants, the politicians can set a broad policy framework but no more. Belgium functioned for 541 days without a Government, until December 2011, the country being run perfectly well by the civil service.

    It was the fact that the civil service blocked irresponsible, short term and idiotic policies in Ceylon that lead to Felix Dias Bandaranaike disbanding the service in 1965.

    The civil servants of old were brilliant products of the University and who either came from a background of wealth or, if they were not, were able to attract huge dowries (due to the prestige of their position) and were thus, in most instances, financially independent.

    The could not be browbeaten intellectually or be corrupted and provided a formidable obstacle to short-term, stupid policies, thus they had to go.

  • eureka

    The author must be thanked for bringing this out to the public and for questioning the Bureaucrats on their responsibiliteis.

    What shoulld the TNA be doing now?

    What should the public be doing now?

    Is this translated into Tamil and brought to the attention of the population?

  • Citizen

    LLRC itself is a good example of what can be done if those appointed by the govt stand tall without a blemish. It is to the credit of the chairman Bulla CR de Silva and his team that they did their duty by the nation and did not succumb to pressure from the govt.

    1. C. R. De Silva, PC (chair) – Attorney General (2007–2009); Solicitor General (1999–2007); Deputy Solicitor General (1992–97)
    2. A. Rohan Perera, PC – former legal advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and current member of the International Law Commission
    3. Karunaratne Hangawatte – Professor of Criminal Justice at the Department of Criminal Justice, University of Nevada, Las Vegas and former consultant to the United Nations[18]
    4. Chandirapal Chanmugam – Secretary to the Treasury (1987–88)
    5. H. M. G. S. Palihakkara – former Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and former Permanent Representative to the United Nations
    6. Manohari Ramanathan – former Deputy Legal Draftsman and former member of the Monetary Board of Sri Lanka
    7. Maxwell Parakrama Paranagama – former High Court Judge
    8. M. T. M. Bafiq – Senior Attorney at law and member of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka

    The commission’s secretary was S. B. Atugoda, a former ambassador.

    Unfortunately they are a vanishing breed of public servants who were products of the best schools in the island. These days we have political appointees of mediocre character occupying key positions, not on merit but due to the right connections (more aptly wrong connections). They cannot be expected to do justice to the public.

    • eureka

      Submissions to LLRC were so good and convincing that the Commissioners had only to use them for recommendations

    • Ward

      Is the govt going to implement any of the recommendations? So far even singing of the national anthem in Tamil isn’t done – that tells a LOT.

      He has the guts to talk about ”our miniha” in the public and refuses to release the reports of 15 commissions he appointed – wasn’t it a surprise that the LLRC report was published at all – as to the implementing of the recommendations = mmhhhhhhhhhhh

  • Luxmy Silva

    We need an ”Arab Spring” against these bureaucrats.

  • Dagobert

    We need a Civil Service that could get rid of Trade Unionism.