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Jobs for votes

As the story goes, a distant relation of a nawab once begged him for a job. The nawab, in his infinite generosity appointed him head of the treasury. When it was submitted to his highness that the post was very critical and that the applicant didn’t possess the relevant credentials, the nawab thundered that, being the ruler of the state, it was for him to decide whether a person deserved a job and that it was beneath his high office to turn down a job application, especially when approached by someone related to him. The new man in charge of the treasury made a mess of the finances of the state and in a few years it was reduced to insolvency.

This anecdote, of course, doesn’t apply to Pakistan where democrats rule, rather than nawabs. However, one may still ask whether there’s anything wrong with the government providing jobs to people? Not in the slightest. The public sector being the largest employer all over the world, including Pakistan, government departments take the lead in job generation. It’s therefore hard to find fault with the employment creation role of the government. However, what may come under question, and at times does, is the way this role is performed.

Governments generate jobs in three broad ways. One, they create jobs directly by filling situations in government, semi-government and autonomous departments. Even in a relatively small economy like Pakistan, normally thousands of vacancies arise in the public sector every year and are filled.

Two, through economic policies and administrative measures the government creates conditions which are conducive to employment creation in the private sector. Fiscal and monetary policies drive up the aggregate demand in the economy, which makes businesses step up their production and, in the process, hire additional labour.

The right industrial policy shores up the productivity of the economy, while investment and trade policies may push up capital formation and exports, which serve as instruments of employment creation. Sustained economic growth, macroeconomic stability, improved law and order situation, overcoming supply-side constraints such as energy shortages, and a business-friendly environment also contribute to job generation.

Three, the government helps people get jobs by investing considerably in human-resource development. By imparting quality education and training, the government can enhance the productive capacity of the labour force and makes it easier for them to get employed.

The foregoing brings out the fact that giving jobs is only one instrument of employment generation for the government. However, in Pakistan, a mixed economy where public and private sectors coexist, governments by and large deem it to be the only one. Even this instrument is used in a way that plays havoc with the management of the economy, as well as the public sector, and results in more jobs being lost than created. Here is a brief account of how this is done.

To begin with, providing jobs is looked upon as a means of political patronage, rather than that of keeping the wheels of the economy moving. Generally, among the first things a minister does on assuming office is to appoint a bunch of cronies in his secretariat, as well as in the departments attached to his ministry. Most of the fresh appointments made in a ministry are of people who are domiciled in the constituency of the minister concerned.

It may be argued that every minister is entitled to choose his team as in the end he bears the responsibility for the working of the ministry. Besides, since a minister represents his constituents, there’s nothing wrong if he recruits them. Such arguments seem to be sound, but actually they are not. Even under the Rules of Business a minister is the policy head of the ministry, not its administrative head. His job is to preside over the policy of the ministry, rather than recruit people here and there.

In fact, ministers by and large are not much interested in policymaking. What they are mainly interested in is doling out jobs or awarding contracts. However, even a mighty minister can’t provide jobs to all his constituents or supporters, though he categorically says “no” to none. A former chief minister of Punjab would use ink of three colours while writing orders on job applications.

When he wrote in red ink, it meant that the applicant would not get the job. Instructions in blue ink meant that the applicant would be employed subject to a vacancy. And orders in green ink meant that the applicant would be given the job even if no situation was vacant.

As for the second argument, while a legislator represents his constituents in the assembly, in his capacity as minister he has to watch the broader public interests relating to his ministry rather than the narrow interests of his supporters in the constituency. In other words, a minister has to rise above constituency politics.

Those, then, having stronger political connections have a greater chance of getting jobs, irrespective of whether they deserve them or not. Being closer to the people in power rather than having the relevant qualifications or expertise is the criterion for getting a job. Thus, a person who holds only a secondary school certificate may be made the head of a mega public-sector enterprise just because he happens to be a friend or relation of a bigwig of the ruling party.

Such appointments have several implications. Not only does a non-deserving person get the job, one who really deserves it is deprived of it. The non-deserving person, knowing well that he owes his job to the one who influenced his appointment, deems himself loyal to his benefactor rather than to the organisation he is part of. This is an instance of “You scratch my back and I scratch yours.”

Political appointments also hamper the efficiency of the organisation. If an organisation is run by incompetent persons appointed on political basis, it will soon be off the track. In case of a public-sector enterprise (PSE), such as the railways or PIA, the government will have to pump in heaps and heaps of money just to keep it afloat. A cash-starved government like ours will have to resort to bank borrowing to save its loss-making enterprises.

Political interference results in both induction of incompetent persons and over-staffing of the PSEs. Surplus employees are not only a burden on the organisation’s finances they are also a drag on output and efficiency. Unemployment can’t be eradicated just by inducting the entire jobless labour force in the public sector. It is primarily by attracting and promoting investment, investing in human-resource development and enhancing the efficiency of the public sector that the government can generate employment.

With elections drawing closer, the government is filling thousands of vacancies largely on political grounds in violation of rules. While these appointments may help the ruling party get some votes, they will strike at both the economy and the PSEs. But who cares!

Here is a real-life example. Some time back, in order to improve the law and order situation a provincial chief minister wanted to introduce some reforms in the police. But he was told that the proposed reforms could not get underway because a majority of policemen, from constable to inspector, were criminals who had been inducted on political grounds in violation of rules. When the chief minister decided to fire those policemen, he was told that they were appointed by his own party. After hearing this, the chief minister dropped the idea of police reforms.

The writer is a freelance contributor. Email: hussainhzaidi@gmail.com

Hussain H. Zaidi, "Jobs for votes," The News. 2013-01-14.