Last Sunday (March 25, 2018), university students all over the country brought out a unique procession. Putting all their educational certificates around their necks, they took to the streets with mops and brooms. As the procession moved forward, the students started sweeping the streets. Hundreds of thousands of university and college students brought out this unique, peaceful demonstration all over the country demanding reformation of the government's current quota system in public service recruitment, where 56 percent of the candidates are recruited on a quota-based system; not one based on merit. Md Yamin Molla, Joint Convener of Shadharon Chhatra Odhikar Sangrakkhan Parishad (Committee to Protect Rights of All Students) says: “It is a part of our cleaning campaign on the occasion of Independence Day. However, it also has a symbolic implication.”
One of his fellow protesters, Nur Muhammad, who completed graduation and post-graduation from the University of Dhaka explains the symbolic meaning: “Due to discriminatory quota system, qualified graduates cannot avail government jobs. We have to wait year upon year for a job only to be ultimately refused as we do not have the privilege of the quota. At that point, our educational credentials are rendered useless. We took to the streets with brooms and mops to convey the message that if the existing quota system is not reformed immediately, we shall be forced to take lesser jobs which do not require higher education degrees.”
College and university students of Bangladesh have been demonstrating for a reform of the quota system for more than a decade. Recently, the students' movement reached new heights when some protesters were arrested and the police foiled their demonstration near Shikkha Bhaban by shelling the students with tear gas canisters on March 14, 2018. On the same day, students all over the country staged continued demonstrations by blocking the national highways, demanding the release of their comrades. On March 15 all of their comrades were released as a result of the intense protests.
However, the students' five-point demands to reform the quota system fell upon deaf years. Their demands include: reduction of quota down to 10 percent from 56 percent; recruitment of candidates on the basis of merit if eligible candidates with quota privilege cannot be found; no more special recruitment exam for the candidates eligible for quota; uniform age limit for all in government jobs and prevention of all forms of discrimination in the recruitment process which has been enshrined in Clauses 1 and 2 of Article 29 of Bangladesh's constitution.
To their dismay, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced on March 21, 2018 that the quota system for the children and grandchildren of freedom fighters, who enjoy more than half of all the reservations (30 percent of 56 percent), will not be changed. However, she also said: “The existing quota system might be relaxed to that extent that if anyone cannot be found to fill the quota then steps can be taken to fill those vacant positions with other brilliant students.”
The PM's remark clearly indicates that the Bangladesh government is not going to reduce the current 56 percent quota in the public service recruitment. According to this system, if Bangladesh Government's Public Service Commission (PSC) recruits 100 officers through a recruitment exam, 44 of them will be recruited on the basis of merit, 30 will be recruited from the applicants who are children or grandchildren of freedom fighters, 10 female candidates will be recruited due to 10 percent female quota, 10 candidates will be recruited from under-developed districts (district quota), five will be recruited from indigenous candidates and one disabled candidate will be recruited thanks to only one percent disabled quota.
However, if the vacant positions cannot be filled with candidates eligible for quota, the reserved positions will remain vacant and special exams can be arranged only for these candidates to fill in the positions. However, this system of prioritising quota over merit has been criticised by many, even by current and former bureaucrats, as the Bangladesh government is the first and foremost victim of this bizarre recruitment system.
Former adviser and renowned civil servant Akbar Ali Khan says: “Due to preserving huge number of job positions only for candidates with quota privilege, every year a large number of positions in different government offices remain vacant, which severely affects efficiency of the services. On the other hand qualified, meritorious candidates remain unemployed and the Bangladesh government is losing its potential human resources.”
In fact, data provided by the officials of the Ministry of Public Administration (MPA) support his statement.
According to the MPA, the PSC could not recruit 366 cadre officers in the positions which were preserved for candidates with quota privilege after the 36th Bangladesh Civil Service Exam (BCS). However, this time, PSC recommended filling those vacant positions with the qualifiers of 37th BCS exam—first with the candidates having quota privilege and if not possible, then on the basis of merit. However, this recommendation is applicable only for the 37th BCS exam. In previous years, the vacant positions used to remain vacant.
For instance, 338 positions were vacant after the 35th BCS exam, 773 positions remained vacant after the 31st BCS exam, 784 positions were vacant after the 30th BCS exam, 792 after the 29th and 813 positions were vacant after the 28th BCS exam.
PSC organised the 32nd BCS exam only for candidates with quota privilege. However, due to a severe lack of qualified candidates among eligible candidates, PSC had to leave 1125 positions vacant. According to MPA, there are around 300,000 vacant positions at present in the public service sector. Many of these positions could not be filled due to the current discriminatory quota system.
Akbar Ali Khan and Kazi Rakib Uddin Ahmad (former civil servant and later appointed as Chief Election Commissioner) conducted a research study on the existing quota system in Bangladesh Civil Service in March 2008. In their report, they recommended a reduction in the quota to 20 percent. The report can still be found in the PSC office. However, the recommendation was never realised.
According to Akbar Ali Khan, the report stated that in 1977 almost all members of the then Pay and Service Commission expressed their opposition to enforcing any type of quota for recruiting government officers.
“Only one member, M M Zaman, spoke in favour of the quotas. However, he said that from 1987 the quota system needed to be diminished within 10 years through gradual decrease every year,” Khan says.
Even according to Zaman's recommendation, there should have been no provision of quota in government service after 1997. However, the government did not take any step to implement the recommendations made in the report.
Former Chairman of the PSC Dr Sadat Hossain says: “The quota is a special provision for under-privileged populations, and it's an exception. It can't be more than the merit provision. The system also needs to be time-bound. That means the government must clearly declare the expiry year of a quota provision. Special provisions can't continue after their necessity expires.”
In a situation where there are thousands of job positions vacant in the government service, which could not be filled due to the existing quota system, the Bangladesh government's stubborn refusal to reform the system according to the students' demands is quite surprising, not to mention self-defeating.
Bangladesh is a country of three million unemployed youth, 47 percent of whom are university graduates. In this reality, reforming the existing quota system has become a national claim. To ensure a brilliant and skilled workforce the government should take acceptable and rational steps to reform the quota system so that the underprivileged section of the population can be uplifted without compromising with the aspirations of a meritocracy.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org