Erosion of merit in Pakistan: the hows and whys

No regime in Pakistan can claim that it has adhered to the culture of merit targeting nepotism and corruption.

Another case of blatant nepotism and violation of merit occurred on March 25, when the Principal of Aitchison College, Lahore, Michael A Thompson, an Australian national, resigned while protesting against flagrant interference from the Punjab Governor on a debilitating issue in which he allowed a leave of absence and full waiver for a period of three years to two children of former bureaucrat and Federal Minister for Economic Affairs, Ahad Cheema.

Reflecting the culture of nepotism and favouritism in Pakistan, Saima Ahad Cheema, the minister’s wife and a bureaucrat herself, submitted an application for the waiver of her two sons before the Punjab Governor, who is the controlling authority of the College. She argued that being a civil servant she was transferred from Lahore to Islamabad in June 2022 and her children were minors who could not be left unsupervised in Lahore. Interestingly, instead of cancelling admission of her children, she applied for reservation of seats and waiver of fee which the Governor obliged to despite objection by the College Principal. This incident of nepotism prompted Michael A Thompson to write a letter to College staff on March 25 in which he lamented, “I will share with you that a continuation of very poor governance has left me no other choice. Throughout my time as a Principal, I have done my very best to protect the School’s reputation.”

Instead of being ashamed of seeking undue concessions from the College for keeping admission of his sons and waiving fee (later withdrawn), both the husband and wife justified their act arguing that the Governor and College management had approved their request. But it does not matter to high-ups if a competent and reputed person who ran Aitchison College smoothly for eight years decided to resign on his principles. The contributions of Mr Thompson for the College were endorsed by Mr Syed Babar Ali who resigned as Chairman of the School’s Board of Governors. He praised Mr Thompson, stating in his letter of resignation that he had “worked tirelessly for the College more than any other Principal”. However, the loss of a person holding the position of a college principal will not have any impact on those who are involved in the genocide of merit and responsible for promoting the culture of corruption and nepotism.

The Aitchison College episode is a serious matter because it reflects not only the perennial disease of corruption and nepotism in Pakistan but also the absence of character on the part of those who matter. It is rightly said that the destruction of institutions in Pakistan is a reality because incompetent and dishonest people on the positions of power leave no opportunity in augmenting a culture of corruption and nepotism. It is the nexus of mafias in almost all the institutions of Pakistan which led to the degeneration of Pakistan International Airlines, Pakistan Steel Mills, Pakistan Railways other state owned enterprises along with public sector universities and other educational institutes. When appointments are made on political grounds while disregarding calibre, the outcome is total collapse of merit, governance and the rule of law.

The hows and whys of the erosion of merit in Pakistan need to be analysed from three positions.

First, the why answers that it is when the mindset governing Pakistan along with the society is devoid of character, principles, accountability and the rule of law. When the line drawn between right and wrong has been erased in the last more than five decades, how can one expect paradigm shift as far as the culture of merit is concerned? Starting from nationalisation of factories, industries, banks, insurance companies and educational institutes in 1972, the then government of Bhutto compromised on merit and inducted people on political and personal grounds. The damage done to integrity, honesty, character and accountability in the workplace of Pakistan is so deeply rooted that no government since 1972 has been able to reverse the process of corruption and nepotism. When taking bribe and compromising on merit in terms of appointments and policies are acceptable how can one expect responsible people to take a stand on issues which require boldness and courage? It is the mindset of elites which is devoid of principles and integrity and tends to degenerate institutions.

Second, the how points to the materialistic culture that sanctions ill-gotten money and the misuse of authority. When the perception about fearing from God’s wrath in case of loot and plunder is lost, those who want to be honest are marginalised by those who are in a majority and confident that they can escape the corruption and nepotism. The fragility of our justice system is a major reason how the mafias having deep-rooted nexus are able to snub the culture of merit. If Pakistan’s justice system is functional and not influenced by those who matter, most of the critical issues faced by this country may be resolved.

Third, no regime in Pakistan can claim that it has adhered to the culture of merit targeting nepotism and corruption. Even during the PTI government’s rule, merit was not given due consideration. Decisions on the basis of personal likes and dislikes along with political opportunism and vendetta reflected how Imran Khan let the people of Pakistan down by promoting nepotism and corruption. One example to prove this was when the then Chairman of HEC, Dr Tariq Banuri, was arbitrarily removed from his position in 2021. Person-specific amendment was made through legislation in National Assembly and his tenure was reduced from four to two years. Such an act was blatant corruption and nepotism as Khan was influenced by those who had an agenda against Dr Banuri. However, Dr Banuri went to court and was able to get relief but in the legal battle spanning a year, he had only six to seven months left to continue in office. There are several other examples to prove, particularly in Punjab, through Chief Minister Usman Buzdar, First Lady Bushra Bibi, her friend Farah Gogi and former bureaucrat Tahir Khurshid, as to how during PTI’s rule merit was compromised and exposed Khan’s so-called resolve to eradicate corruption and nepotism. Perhaps, the people of Pakistan will have to live with this culture and the erosion of merit will continue to prey upon the people in years to come.

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