In contemporary Pakistan, a massive segment of the youth aspire to embark on a journey towards the civil service by attempting the highly competitive Central Superior Services (CSS) examination. This surge in interest, however, seems to have taken an increasingly perplexing and irrational turn. In the year 2022, the pass rate for this formidable examination stood at a mere 1.85%. Out of a total of 20,262 candidates who courageously undertook the rigorous written examination, only a minuscule 393 managed to successfully secure a place in the viva voce stage. Amidst Pakistan’s myriad of pressing issues, the CSS conundrum often remains obscured in the shadows.
The origins of Pakistan’s civil bureaucracy can be traced back to the legacy of British colonial rule. During the colonial era, the British administered the subcontinent through the Indian Civil Service (ICS), primarily composed of British officers. However, by the early 20th century, a select group of ‘elite’ Indians had managed to break through the initial dominance of British officers and secure positions within the ICS. This cadre of civil bureaucrats fostered what is now known as the ‘Babu Culture’ in the subcontinent. Both India and Pakistan inherited this culture, where suit-clad English-speaking men issuing commands were accorded more respect than other professionals. Despite the global evolution and reforms in civil bureaucratic systems, Pakistan’s civil bureaucracy seems to be stagnating, if not regressing.
The Central Superior Services, commonly referred to as CSS or Civil Service, is the elite permanent civil service entity in Pakistan entrusted with the responsibility of managing bureaucratic operations, government secretariats, and cabinet directorates. Historically, this civil bureaucracy was predominantly occupied by individuals hailing from the political and social elite. However, as the middle-class grapples with challenges like unemployment and inadequate compensation, the CSS examination has emerged as a seemingly foolproof pathway to ensure a ‘secure’ future.
This trend of pursuing the civil service reflects the herd mentality that the Pakistani youth have often exhibited. There was a time when every high school student in the nation aspired to join the military or air force to ‘serve the country’. However, the tarnished reputation of the Pakistani military establishment has shifted the aspirations of today’s youth towards conquering the CSS examination as their means of ‘serving the country’. Yet, this situation raises several concerns.
First and foremost, the notion that only participation in civil service equates to ‘serving’ the country undermines the valuable contributions made by professionals in various other fields such as education, engineering, medicine, journalism, and more. These individuals contribute equally, if not more, to the nation’s progress. The contemporary desire among middle-class youth to join the civil service mirrors the aspirations of their predecessors from a decade or two ago who aimed to join the armed forces – both pursuits driven by the desire to transcend their middle-class origins and attain positions of power. This mindset, deeply rooted in the Babu Culture inherited from the British, equates power with success.
Furthermore, the state of Pakistan’s civil bureaucracy has deteriorated over the years. Corruption and nepotism have permeated every facet of the civil service. Local politicians, often less qualified than bureaucrats, treat these officers as pawns, rewarding them upon completing tasks. As retired and resigned CSS officers have indicated, these tasks often prioritize the interests of Pakistan’s political and social elite over those of the common man. Historically, this was not a significant issue, as the country’s civil ‘servants’ belonged to the elite class and could exert some influence over which orders to obey or defy. However, today’s youth, having joined the civil service, lack the social standing and political backing required to refuse orders from their superiors. The cost of sacrificing integrity and selling one’s moral compass is a few lakhs.
This predicament can be traced back to Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s ‘administrative reforms’, which stripped bureaucrats of their constitutional safeguards and rendered them subservient to politicians. In the days of the subcontinent, bureaucrats served the monarch; today, who do Pakistan’s bureaucrats truly serve?
The tragic story of Jahanzaib Khilji, a customs officer falsely accused of murder and imprisoned for 16 years merely for attempting to combat smuggling, stands as just one of numerous tales that should serve as a cautionary tale for the youth aspiring to join the civil service for the sake of ‘serving the country’.
It is imperative for Pakistani youth to dispel the misconception of ‘serving the country’ and recognize that their desire to join the civil service primarily stems from the pursuit of a better lifestyle. These aforementioned realities are widely acknowledged. Nevertheless, the youth ardently compete to pass the ‘prestigious’ CSS examination, unwittingly playing their part in the country’s downfall. A mindset that associates work with the lower class and authority with success can never genuinely serve a nation. This is not to suggest that the youth entering the civil service harbor ill intentions or have the capacity to effect change. Yet, the youth are undoubtedly cognizant of the trajectory they must follow once entrenched in the bureaucracy.
The landscape is saturated with institutions capitalizing on CSS preparation and reaping substantial profits. The middle-class youth, equipped with talents and capabilities for greatness, remain enslaved by a mindset that the world abandoned a century ago. Prioritizing talent, skills, and diligence over herd mentality is imperative. If the youth genuinely aim to enhance their nation, they must begin by being honest with themselves. By redirecting their aspirations toward holistic progress rather than mere personal gain, the Pakistani youth can break free from the historical shackles of the ‘Babu Culture’. Regarding the country’s bureaucracy, it ought to undergo either comprehensive reform or complete elimination. After all, a financially struggling country like Pakistan cannot justify allocating public taxes towards lifelong luxuries and amenities for a bureaucracy that predominantly serves only a specific segment of the population.
Taut Bataut – is a researcher and writer that publishes on South Asian geopolitics, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.