The English Sarkar

Source:  Tribune Published in Current Affairs on Saturday, March 18, 2017

Linguistic discrimination is a widely-used tool to reinforce authority, dominance, injustice, and biases across the world. A similar phenomenon appears to hold in Pakistan’s public sector and it has in fact gone to the extent of apartheid through the (mis) use of English language. Let me clarify first that the purpose here is not to contribute to the dialogue on the use of English or Urdu as a language for official correspondence. The objective is to share experiences and insights that English is no more just a medium of communication in the public sector. Instead, it is a barrier to entry for many, a ladder to career progression for few, and a source of inefficiency and mismanagement in the public sector of Pakistan.

English proficiency is one of the fundamental criteria for entry into the public sector. Be it a CSS exam or lateral entry, less importance is given to an individual’s creative abilities, the quest for knowledge, problem-solving skills, and even expertise to deliver on duty. Instead, a proficiency in English language, memorisation skills, and higher academic scores hold key importance in the competitive exams for entry in the public sector. And in case of lateral entry, often, it’s the connection with the elite circles. The recruiters pretend themselves as well-versed in English language and literature. Resultantly, they disconnect themselves from the majority of people in Pakistan who don’t speak and understand English. It was not a surprise that once Pakistan’s bureaucracy was dominated by candidates from elite English medium schools and colleges with a majority having degrees from English departments. It was difficult for others to compete with graduates of those schools, particularly in English language proficiency. Due to weak English proficiency, students from rural and less privileged urban schools continue to struggle for educational achievements and entry into the public sector at a decent level.

Public officials admire the ones who write or speak English well within their cohorts. It has become a means of discrimination and differentiation between proficient and non-proficient English language users in the public sector.

The productivity of a sizeable proportion of public sector officials is limited due to spending significant time on either pointing out errors in correspondence written in English by their junior colleagues and support staff or editing their own writings on the direction of their seniors. The sentence formation, placement of punctuation and formatting of the document get more attention than its content and spirit. At times, whole Division/Department is involved in structuring sentences of a few pages for days. Not to mention, the countless reams of paper and ink purchased with public funds wasted in printing the evolving versions of the documents. The documents that evolve after this tedious process include the so-called policy briefs, working papers for the meeting, letters, minutes of the meetings, noting on the files, summaries for higher executive offices, responses to the parliamentary forums and committees, speeches for ministers, responses of audit paras, PowerPoint presentations, explanations of the cases in courts and others. The astonishing amount of time spent on such drafts often help executive officials to keep political representatives and people at large unaware about the actual situation of a problem or issue under review.

Only a fraction of time is spent on critical analysis of the issue under consideration and evolving solutions through utilising the human resource and institutional capability available. Most of such accounts of misuse of English can be found in federal and provincial secretarial ministries/departments. The unfortunate reality is that policy formulation work (if any) is either outsourced to attached departments/organisations or to local and foreign consultants. For more insights into mismanagement of the public sector, I would recommend reading an Urdu book, Kaghaz Ka Ghora (Paper Horse) by Aksi Mufti. The book has amusing and at the same time distressing stories and anecdotes of inefficiencies in the public sector.

I am unable to propose a solution of any of the above problems now. The purpose here is to highlight how our English Sarkar hides its inefficiency behind the archaic style of sentence formation accentuated by the art of complex punctuations. The aim here is to open a dialogue on one of the least discussed sources of inefficiency in the public sector. Nazir Ahmad Wattoo, a famous social worker of Changa Pani fame, once asked me: “What’s wrong with Pakistan’s policies?” And then he replied himself: “Policies are thought and drafted in English, communicated in Urdu, and implemented for and by the ones who speak and understand only local languages.”

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Written by Naveed Iftikhar