The colours of us

  • Reserved quotas have had a positive impact in maintaining diversity at the workplace.
- DEEPAK THAPA, Kathmandu

Apr 4, 2019-

In a recent interview I conducted with writer Manjushree Thapa, she made the rather interesting observation that the ‘first Constituent Assembly was the single-most intelligent body of governance Nepal has ever had…’ Readers would be forgiven for wondering about the basis for such an assertion. Had she taken time off from writing to go around conducting IQ tests of all the 600-odd members of the 2008 Constituent Assembly (CA)? Or, was she privy to some study that the rest of us are quite unaware of? The answer lies in the remainder of her statement, ‘…because it was so inclusive’.

Most of us would remember the off-hand comments made at the time, questioning the credentials of many of the CA members, particularly those inducted through reserved quotas in the proportional representation part of the election, the majority of whom were women. Disparagement came from all sections of society—members of the intelligentsia and down to the morning congregations around tea stalls. The one measure being used to gauge someone’s suitability to represent us in the country’s highest legislative body appeared to be educational attainment. Forgotten was what Manjushree was hinting at: the rich variety of life experiences and viewpoints that could have enriched the discussions about the new constitution.

That most diverse group of national legislators ever can hardly be blamed for the absence of any avenue to meaningfully express themselves on the contours of the constitution since, ultimately, it was the top party leaders who had the final say in everything. Even if it had been possible to pack the CA with PhDs holders, the result would have been no different. Seeing how the CA functioned, in terms of being able to influence the course of the constitutional debates, the few honourable doctor sahebs fared no better or worse than the honourable under-SLCs.

The fault lies in the structure of all our political parties and the power inherent in the paramount leadership. But, that is hardly a reason to feel sceptical of the value of our affirmative action policies, although limited mostly to ethnic quotas so far. As Robert Rhew, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote some time ago in the New York Times: ‘[T]he benefits of the racial and ethnic diversity that affirmative action produces are shared by everyone. When this diversity exists, stereotypes are shattered, arguments are informed by experience, and alternate perspectives lead to revelations.’

 

Don’t knock affirmative action

The advantages of having a state that looks like Nepal as it actually is should soon become evident in that other important arena: the civil service. The Civil Service Act was amended in 2007 in the yet-heady days following the great transformation of 2006, with ethnic and gender quotas introduced. As was to be expected, there was immediate scepticism about how that would affect the calibre of our civil service with ‘less qualified’ candidates entering government institutions. One could easily make a good case that looking at the state of almost all our public bodies, if this is what the ‘most talented’ of Nepali graduates could reduce them to, we can be no worse off if the civil service intake also takes in ‘less talented’ graduates in the interest of better social harmony. But, more seriously, one cannot but agree when Professor Rhew says: ‘While scores and grades may provide a general measure of cognitive ability and motivation, no universal metric can exactly gauge applicants’ intellect or their value to an institution.’ Take the recent incidents that involved the ignominious booting out of a sitting Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and an acting Chief Justice. We found out through the public display of their academic records in the media that both were third division students in high school and college. Yet, for being able to reach such positions of power one would have to admit that neither lacked intelligence even if their contribution to the country’s jurisprudence may be quite suspect.

Perhaps the most lucid statement in favour of affirmative action was made by the American president, Lyndon B. Johnson, more than half a century. In his memorable words: ‘You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the

starting line of a race and then say, “You are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.’

To stretch Johnson’s metaphor in our context, until all of our citizens are able to reach the starting point similarly equipped—and that is where the focus of affirmative action policies should be—the only way to erase disadvantages arising from differences in gender, language, caste, ethnicity or location in the interim is through reserved quotas. One can already see glimpses of the coming changes as one walks into any government office. Even though it is yet to permeate into the higher ranks, the name plates in the corridors are beginning to better reflect Nepal’s rich social heritage, and it is a pretty sight indeed.

The good news on the recruitment side is that despite initial difficulties in filling up the reserved quotas, that hurdle seems to have been crossed. In the year 2010/11 only 35 percent of the 45 percent reserved had been taken, but, by 2017/18, almost the entire quota of 45 percent had been filled. In actual numbers, this means that of the intake of 41,068 civil servants between those years, 16,939 (41 percent) were from the reserved categories, with 5,728 (14 percent) being women. (These figures do not include individuals from various groupseligible for reservations, including women, who enter through the ‘open’ category.)

 

A familiar face

One should be under no illusion that a more diverse civil service automatically translates into one more responsive to the people it serves. In the words of sociologist Max Weber, the civil service ‘separates the bureau from the private domicile of the official, and, in general, bureaucracy segregates official activity as something distinct from the sphere of private life...[T]he more perfectly the more the bureaucracy is “dehumanised”, the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from official business love, hatred, and all purely personal, irrational, and emotional elements which escape calculation.’

That is his definition of an ideal type bureaucracy. Rare, perhaps even non-existent, is the individual who can purge ‘personal, irrational, and emotional elements’ from the self. That is what bureaucrats are expected to strive towards but, as Weber also points out, ‘[bureaucratic administration fundamentally means the exercise of domination based on knowledge’, since vis-à-vis the public they deal with it is they who know what the rules are or even where the files are stored. That is how bureaucrats act the world over. The value of a more representative civil service lies in the fact that the person at the receiving end of a bureaucratic short shrift is less likely to view it as having to do with his or her identity, and to do with the nature of the institution of bureaucracy itself.

That is why I find myself at pains to understand this assertion I have heard from more than a few people over the years, including from Madhesi intellectuals, that ordinary Madhesis service-seekers prefer not to deal with Madhesi bureaucrats, and given the option, they would choose a non-Madhesi. Without a sociological study of the reasons behind this seeming paradox, these are but impressions. But, one can surely say with almost 100 percent certainty that no Madhesi chief district officer (CDO) would summarily declare that Madhesis are Indians, as a number of pahadi CDOS are reported to have during the different phases of the unrest in the Tarai. That in itself is a good enough argument for a more diverse civil service.

Published: 04-04-2019 12:05

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