In 1849, a commissioner was paid a monthly salary of Rs2,750. Almost 150 years later, when I joined the civil service as an assistant commissioner, I was handed over a paltry sum of Rs3,800 as my net take-home salary. The salary that was once a fortune was now worth peanuts.
One would often come across news about the so-called excessive ‘perks’ of civil servants and the ‘billions of taxpayers’ money’ spent on sprawling houses, motorcades and armies of servants. While it is tempting to believe this popular criticism, in reality civil servants remain severely underpaid, with these perks only enjoyed by a lucky few. While it cannot be denied that there might be many who are making money under the table, the ones who aren’t should not be penalised.
But why should we care at all about civil servants’ salaries? Shouldn’t we be happy that the burden on public exchequer is low? Not really. Civil servants regulate economic activities, oversee billions of rupees of development money, collect revenues, issue licences and perform many other critical functions. Low remuneration builds in an inherent incentive for corruption. Moreover, it filters the talent base over time favouring those who could either survive without adequate and legitimate salaries or the ones who do not have better alternatives, thus compromising on the quality of talent. Even the ones with missionary zeal, if there are any, worry about making ends meet rather than focusing on their work. These civil servants then make policies, which impact us today and our generations to come. We should therefore only favour low salaries if we want incompetent or corrupt civil servants.
Let’s look at the monthly salary of a grade 22 officer, the top-most echelon of the civil service, which starts from Rs82,380 and goes up to Rs164,560. A serving federal secretary confided that his total take-home salary is around Rs286,000, including Rs96,000 as transport monetisation allowance, in lieu of his official car. A CEO from the private sector in Pakistan, on the other hand, would earn anywhere between 5 and 50 times this amount.
An Islamabad-based multinational is paying Rs100,000 per month to its management trainees, whereas a leading telecom starts its salary from Rs75,000 for entry-level executives. These salaries are not anomalies and rather typical for bright graduates from good universities, similar to the talent pool attracted by central superior services.
Interestingly, the problem of low salaries pertains to higher grades only. Talking to a provincial secretary’s driver working in grade six, I was surprised to know that his salary is about Rs45,000 with guaranteed increments every year. In the private sector, the drivers’ salaries range from Rs15,000 to Rs20,000.
In recent years, the government has adopted a number of quick-fix solutions, including adhoc relief allowance, project allowance, special allowance, senior post allowance, deputation allowance, honorarium, plots for civil servants, transport monetisation allowance, MP-scales, etc, with the proposals for utility and late-sitting allowance now under consideration. However, besides providing little benefit to address the problem, these have massively complicated the salary structure.
Similarly, a number of public-sector companies established in recent past were primarily created to make room for market-based salaries to attract civil servants, so that they give up more lucrative field positions. In the absence of a transparent appointment and performance assessment system however, not only this differentiated compensation structure for civil servants has generated wide discontent amongst the majority who don’t get such jobs but this model is now also being questioned by the Supreme Court.
We must realise that these makeshift solutions would do more harm than good. Without addressing the root cause and completely revamping the current grade structure, civil service quality is likely to deteriorate, taking a toll on governance and overall public-sector management.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 17th, 2018.