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Who’s heading what?

By Syed Saadat | From the Newspaper Dawn

I AM building a house and I wish Ahmed Faraz, the poet, or Ashfaque Ahmed, the writer, had been alive. Why? Because I would want one of them to be the project manager responsible for making sure the construction goes well technically.
After reading the first paragraph, readers would reach out for their laptops and blackberries to send me messages about the absurdity of my choice. However, I would like them to consider the three most important technical organisations in the country: Pakistan Railways (PR), the National Highway Authority (NHA) and Wapda. The gentlemen heading these organisations are senior bureaucrats from service groups that have nothing to do with anything of a technical nature.
They are all civil servants who had not served in the departments they are heading prior to their appointment to the top slot.
Secondly, during their careers they have hardly been associated with any job in the technical domain. Thirdly and most importantly, they are bureaucrats occupying positions that, for the sake of Pakistan, should have been occupied by technocrats. However, do not blame them for this; it is absolutely normal in a country where a banker can be turned into a prime minister and back with enviable ease.
Logically speaking, someone from within the officers of an organisation who has given a couple of decades of his life to it and knows the dynamics of the organisation inside out deserves to eventually head it, instead of someone who specialises in not specialising in anything — the typical bureaucrat that is. Degrees earned miles away without the recipient having a clue as to how he or she would actually make use of them hardly helps when it comes to decision-making. Keep in mind the various unions, logistics, attitudes, technical knowledge and vested interests.
If Microsoft had been an organisation in the Government of Pakistan, an MA Persian who cleared the civil service exam in 1979 and knew only one meaning of the word ‘windows’ might have been its CEO.
The other day it was interesting to read the ‘50 years’ section of this paper which said something about Pakistan Railways making a considerable profit in 1961. The news item prompted me to research when things took a turn for the worse in the case of PR. I figured out that until the 1970s, PR was a self-sustaining organisation run by an autonomous railway board which constituted a member traffic, member mechanical, member civil and member finance.
Apart from the member finance all were Railways employees specialising in their respective fields and the PR chairman was also appointed from among these three. That was PR’s golden era, one reason, apart from many others, being that technocrats were in control.
The problems our technical organisations face are not of a commercial nature because the number of passengers willing to travel by train is still pretty high; electricity consumers are desperate to purchase power at any cost; and the need for roads cannot be denied especially when militants continue to take over and destroy infrastructure in the north, including roads and bridges.
I am fully aware that appointing a technical head would not act as a magic wand and matters would not change overnight but at least it would be a step in the right direction. At the moment, we have our eyes set on the moon while we are actually drilling the earth and digging ourselves into a deeper hole.
Some might argue that the chairman PR has general managers from the Railways group and the engineering wing at his disposal to assist him, and similarly the NHA or for that matter Wapda has many technical members who give their input. But the point is this situation ensures that the chairman plays into the hands of those who are better equipped in the said field.
Arbitrary appointments devoid of vision cannot lead to progress. One day a certain officer from a certain fraternity is appointed head of the NHA, the next day he might find himself an OSD and the next something else.
Another interesting fact is that the ‘spoils system’ prevalent in the political parties of Pakistan ensures that the political heads of the ministries are generally clueless. It is part and parcel of the system that we have, though maybe there is nothing bad about it as long as the ‘cluelessness’ ends with the political heads, and the secretary, who happens to be the eyes, ears and hands of the minister, is somebody who knows it all.
Lastly, a suggestion for our policymakers is to think along the lines of establishing a tangible criterion for appointments to top positions in important techno-based organisations. There should be a check list ascertaining the qualifications and the years of service in the said department as eligibility for heading these organisations.
If nobody does that, somebody should move the Supreme Court with a petition in the same manner that we are moving the SC in every other matter. Some, including old-school bureaucrats, who may be holding or vying for such positions themselves, might find these views disturbing. But the point is that they will retire in a few years. It is the country that still has a long way to go and that longs for a paradigm shift.

The writer is a civil servant.

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