By Anjum Altaf
Is there any other country that rewards government employees with grants of land? The issue is not whether the grants comply with existing rules or follow precedent but whether the practice makes sense in the modern age.
We are no longer living in the age of monarchy or colonial rule when land was gifted at will by the rulers to whomsoever pleased them – just think of the landed gentry we inherited as a result. We are now in the era of democracy in which public resources belong to citizens and are to be used in accordance with their sanction. In our system these decisions are made by their representatives in appropriate legislative forums. If citizens are not satisfied with the decisions of their representatives they have the well-known triad of ‘Exit, Voice, and Loyalty’ to fall back on which itself is a democratic choice. In short, they can ignore, oppose, or support the representatives depending on whether their preferences are being respected or not.
We are also living in the age of science where all authority can be questioned as long as the mode of inquiry itself adheres to a set of acceptable rules. In this case the rules of inquiry are enshrined in the right to information. Since there are no conceivable issues of national security involved in matters pertaining to in-service and retirement benefits of state servants, citizens are quite justified to inquire into the rules applicable to such benefits especially when they involve allocation of public resources.
Therefore, it seems quite reasonable to ask for a transparent disclosure of the rules applicable to land grants at this time. A number of questions are very relevant to the review: Who made these rules? When were they made? Have they been debated and approved by the legislature? How do they vary across services? How do they compare across countries? Etc., etc.
Such a review might yield a number of advantages: A reformulation of benefits in accordance with modern bureaucratic practices, a more equitable distribution across services, and a legitimized dispensation more acceptable to citizens.
At first blush, it does seem that grants in terms of land are an anachronistic practice dating, as mentioned before, to the age of monarchy and colonial rule when jagirs were assigned at will. Some might be aware of the Homestead Acts of the mid-nineteenth century in the US when, for a nominal sum, grants of 160 acres of land were made to any citizen migrating West and willing to settle on and farm the land for at least five years. In all over 270 million acres of public land was given away under these acts.
One should not forget that in the US all this land was stolen from native inhabitants. It is interesting that similar acts were passed in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, all settler colonies with small immigrant populations in which land was also appropriated from native inhabitants. In this day and age one would want to avoid the impression that land is being appropriated from the citizens of Pakistan and distributed to members of a conquering population.
It also does appear from casual observation that the benefits presently assigned to the armed forces in Pakistan are disproportionate to those for other services and to global norms. The people’s representatives might well decide there are sufficient reasons for the discrimination but it would be good to gain the understanding and acceptance of the citizens to avoid controversies in the future.
A flavor of the pros and cons was conveyed in a recent discussion where it was mentioned that since members of the armed forces risked their lives in the service of their country they were entitled to disproportionate benefits. This point was conceded but it was mentioned that those working in coal mines and stone crushing factories exposed themselves to greater risk of death. Not only that, they faced the certainty of shortened lifespans because of lung diseases caused by inhaling the coal and silica dust. These workers were not even compensated for work-related mortality or morbidity. The conclusion was that there was a justification for compensatory awards in the event of death or disability at work but not really for the normal execution of duties for which one received adequate emoluments.
It was also mentioned that since our armed forces were the best in the world they were entitled to benefits exceeding global norms. It is indeed quite acceptable to have higher rewards for services over and above expectations but again it would eliminate areas of contention if the global norms are made part of the public disclosure.
An indirect disadvantage of rewarding government employees in this manner is that still far too many aspire for government service without really wanting to serve in the interest of the public. This may be one reason why there is so little innovative activity in Pakistan. Given that such civil servants have been complicit in the mismanagement of public enterprises, a particularly just solution might be to substitute the allocation of scarce land with shares in bankrupt state-owned enterprises like the steel mill or the national airline. This might create some self-interest to improve the profitability of these assets for the shares to yield value. In a capitalist economy there is no quarrel with becoming rich but it is socially beneficial if fortunes are made by entrepreneurial and managerial ability rather than through capturing rents.
No patriotic Pakistani wishes to malign the institutions of the state but citizens do wish to avoid tarnishing the image of the country by conveying the impression that it is a governed by a kleptocratic and authoritarian clique that assigns resources to itself and stifles discussion through intimidation. A little bit of transparency should dispel all such doubts.