Recently, in a meeting at Shilpakala Academy, 42 former secretaries expressed their desire to work as the think tank for the government. The list of the former secretaries who attended the meeting shows that, after retirement many of them have received contractual appointments. Some of them have been appointed to high positions in several constitutional, statutory and autonomous institutions even after their contract expiration. The news has received mixed reactions. We need to delve deeper into this matter.
At present, the average life expectancy of the Bangladeshi's has increased to about 73 years. Earlier, retiring at the age of 57, government officials, were gifted with hats, prayer mats, tasbihs and walking sticks at their farewell, so that they could walk to remain healthy and lead a pious life hoping for a good afterlife. Usually, that's what used to happen in reality. Within a few years after retirement, they would breathe their last. However due to change in demographics, now after retiring at the age of 59 (and 60 for the freedom fighters), many still have 13-14 years capable, working life. Recently, 90th anniversary of a retired Secretary, who is still leading an active life, was celebrated. In this case, the post-retirement active period is around 30 years. What will the former secretaries do during this time? As a result, many of secretaries pamper politicians and help in mischiefs to get contractual appointments into various posts in different agencies. They are not accustomed to living outside the limelight and unprepared for private life.
So it's a relevant question as to what the secretaries will do in their long post-retirement lives. They deserve our thanks for bringing this issue to the forefront. The problem, however is, everyone expected that the former secretaries willing to work in a think tank will bring in some "out of the box" ideas. However, in an economy of which more than 80% is in the private realm they could not think about role outside the government!
Rural areas beset with problems
But they could have thought of mass population outside the government. In fact, underneath the veneer of GDP growth numbers, our rural areas are beset with numerous problems affecting vast majority of our population. Last Sunday, I returned after a three-day personal trip to Sandwip. The riverine communication in the area here has deteriorated below what it was fifty years ago. Embarking and disembarking at the Kumira and Sandwip Ghat reminds one of Pulsirat!
Even though, in the winter season, now the mighty river Meghna is calm. Yet the long queues, waiting for hours after hours etc. add to the unimaginable plight of the passengers. During the monsoon travelling across when the river is billowy is frightening and often life-threatening. There are various such problems across the country - waterlogging, drinkable water crisis, land annexation, river pollution, and absence of care for elderly and children of working mothers, education, health-related problems and many others. Former secretaries could have been the bridge between the people and the government to solve these problems by harnessing their experience and influence. But, they are reluctant to step outside their comfort zone.
Besides the old problems, many news ones are cropping up in the rural areas. For example, there are many immigrant workers from Sandwip in the United States and the Middle East. They send money regularly from abroad to their families. Most likely as a result, the fields are left barren empty even during the winter season. Fields full of Mustard, Pulses, Potatoes, and other winter vegetables that are common sight across the country is missing here. I noticed only a few roadside bean plants. Keeping such lands uncultivated is a national loss. Adjacent to Sandwip new chars have surfaced; when the land next to the house is left barren, who will farm new chars? Everything is overpriced. Bananas are sold in pairs, with the local variety of Bangla kola selling at 16 taka for each pair or 32 taka for four pieces! Cost of transportation is twice as costly compared to Dhaka. Along with men, the women have also become lethargic. Shops are crowded from early morning, as many people line up in queues to buy "tandoor" bread and vegetable curry to eat at the shop or to take home for breakfast.
Only the numbers of shops and markets are growing. The use of ceramic tiles are noticeable everywhere be it homes, mosques or even cemeteries. At the entrance of houses and across the roads there are too many shops, which are filled mostly with products brought from outside: from Chattogram, Noakhali, nearby islands, and the bricks from Khulna. Local production is negligible, and there is no sight of new activities even after being connected to the national electricity grid through submarine cables. What will happen to these landscapes when the incoming remittance flow is interrupted or tapers off! Former secretaries can perform on-the-field research on these issues and come up with workable solution.
Lack of trust on the politicians and the current secretaries
One might ask, what the current secretaries and politicians would do if the former secretaries become the think tanks of the government? Besides, when the former secretaries were in office, there was no need for such think tanks. Why it is needed now? Has the thinking capacity of the current secretaries and politicians diminished? The country has many private "think tanks". Why are the former secretaries not joining these? And why are these private think tanks not grabbing the opportunity to use this pool of talents?
Former secretaries are divided
There are talks about creating an organization that will include all the former secretaries. Is that possible? Since long, the secretaries are divided into two groups: Janatar Mancho (People's Forum) and Uttara Shorojontro (Uttara Conspiracy). There are secretaries not belonging to any of these groups but they are the cornered. Depending on the party in power, these two groups always tried to deprive the neutral officers by branding them as belonging to the other group. Many honest, capable, talented and diligent officers of the administration have become victim of such grouping of senior officers. Many officers with questionable integrity and capability have become secretaries, senior secretaries by depriving many qualified officers.
What the government can do?
Many will agree that the talent and experience of former secretaries needs to be utilized. However, not in a government-affiliated organization. The government may call for proposals from the former secretaries who are willing work at the upazilla level to work alongside the private sector to solve long-standing or new problems. The government can provide financial and other assistance to the secretaries to solve some such selected problems. For example, the preface for the meeting of the secretaries is very well written and is commendable. Imagine if, the author of this preface could provide training to the language teachers of the schools or colleges at the upazilla level. This could help to reduce the crisis of quality education in the underdeveloped areas. Thankfully, some secretaries after their normal retirement have dedicated themselves and volunteered for various public welfare activities.
An example to emulate
I will give an example of what happens when talented and devoted people work outside the capital and the big cities. Mahbub Hossain Shaheed, my friend, and I used to stay at Mohsin Hall of Dhaka University. After graduating from Momenshahi Cadet College, Dhaka University, and finally completing his completing his Master's degree in Public Health from Boston University, he along with his cousin Abdul Matin started working for public welfare through an NGO named "Sojag" in their own village Shailan, Dhamrai. As a result, the village is different from all the others. Even though a distant village, all the civic amenities are available there. Like many of us, he has a residence in the city center of Dhaka, however, he left all these and now lives in Dhamrai.
The dream of Bangabandhu and the spirit of Liberation War
Former secretaries have spoken about championing Bangabandhu's ideals and the spirit of the liberation war. In a speech on June 1972, Bangabandhu spoke of his dream, stating "Every person in my country will get food, get shelter, and have right to a better life. This is my dream." He saw the village at the center of implementing this dream. Without uplifting the village, the spirit of the War of Liberation cannot be imagined. Will the former secretaries leave their comfort zone and move towards achieving these dreams?
Let's finish with comments by Dr. Kamal Taori, the former Secretary of the Government of India and an IAS officer. He firmly believed, "No one should stay in a salaried government position for more than the age of 60 years. The later periods should be spent on reflecting, both personally and collectively, what went wrong and how to correct those." The country and nation have given a lot to the fortunate former secretaries. Now it is their turn to payback the nation. Hopefully, the former secretaries will come forward to accept this challenge.
Muhammad Fouzul Kabir Khan, Former Secretary