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In the fitness of things

By Syed Saadat | From the Newspaper Dawn

SEVERAL decades ago, some members of the public were kept waiting for hours under Jacobabad’s scorching sun to see John Jacob, then the deputy commissioner of the town.
They wanted to request the powerful government functionary to address some minor administrative issues that fell in his domain. In addition to being a British government functionary, Mr Jacob was also an inventor and on that day, he became so engrossed in his workshop that he did not attend to visitors from the general public. Later, when he realised that he had failed to attend to his official duties, he was so filled with regret that the next day, he set up an office under the sun. The intention was to make the self-indulgent Jacob of the day before appreciate the suffering of the people who were forced to wait because of him.
Perhaps for this reason, when decades later it was proposed that the settlement’s name be changed to something more ‘pious’, as has been done to many other cities in this land of the pure, the people of Jacobabad opposed it. Perhaps this is why John Jacob’s grave in Jacobabad is generally afforded the status of a saint’s mausoleum.
The events narrated above took place many years ago, in an era when we were not independent. But 65 years after Independence, in recent days, a news item entitled ‘‘Desperado’ SP shoots youth over trifle’ appeared in the columns of this newspaper. A senior police officer had shot a youngster dead over a petty parking dispute on chaand raat. Such an extreme reaction is indicative of the psychological ill-health and stress levels of the officer.
Dig a little deeper and you find plenty of occasions that reflect insane behaviour on the part of both military and civil officials.
Last year, the then commissioner of Gujranwala Division thrashed the assistant commissioner of Narowal for the rather laughable reason of not getting a washroom cleaned in anticipation of a visit by the chief minister.
Recently, several officers of the Pakistan Army were jailed by a military court upon being found guilty of having links to the Hizbut Tahrir, a banned organisation.
Then, the propensity of army chiefs to topple elected governments is not exactly the epitome of psychologically stable behaviour.
When officers show such tendencies, the lower cadres are sure to be infected as well. One extreme example is that of Malik Mumtaz Qadri, the security official who killed the then governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer.
On a less conspicuous but equally pernicious level, causing losses worth billions to the government kitty for just a few bucks in one’s personal bank account must also be included in the category of deviant behaviour.
A colleague in the civil service described this as being greedy to the extent of “killing a whole cow just to put five kilogrammes of meat in your deep freezer and leaving the rest of it to rot.” Both the civil and military bureaucracies have been considered guilty of such deeds, from the dubious purchase of ships in 1994 to that of railway engines recently.
While differing in their circumstances and scale, these myriad examples serve to show how many of us can become highly insensitive and resort to irrational behaviour.
Why do civilian and military officials so often fail to resist the abuse of official power? Such cases of indiscipline are not because of poor grooming or the lack of proper training; the National Police Academy, Islamabad, the Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul, and the Civil Services Academy, Lahore, etc, are remarkable institutions. There is nothing wrong with their facilities, the training they provide or the principles they advocate. What, then, has gone wrong with government officers?
The answer is to be found in psychological health. Officers no longer take pride in serving the public; instead, they take pride in having cars as big as the house of a poor man and houses bigger than even his imagination. Another category of public officials takes pride in performing duties in the name of a skewed version of religion instead of official duties.
The solution to this mess is not simple, but one definite step towards it can be to focus on the psychological fitness of government functionaries. It is mandatory for both civil and military officials to undergo an annual medical exam; their physical health has to be in line with the duties they are supposed to perform during the year. Given the cases enumerated above, it would seem appropriate that officers be evaluated for psychological health and fitness as well; different categories of mental and emotional well-being can be developed just as has been done in terms of physical health.
In order to prevent the misuse of such a testing system, an independent, fair and transparent body of professionals from the field of psychology should be formed to oversee this; otherwise, given the level of sycophancy and nepotism prevalent in our system, such a body could create more psychological stress instead of helping reduce it.

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