Dhaka is notorious for its traffic. It is quite common to see congestion extending for miles at peak hours. On July 10, however, the capital witnessed a traffic jam that was historic even by its standards. For no sooner had the results of the Bangladesh civil service (BCS) preliminary test been published than a swarm of test takers blocked one of Dhaka’s busiest junctions, Shahbagh Square.
As the protests intensified, the authorities called for the results to be reviewed. But the students wanted more: an end to an enigmatic quota system that gives members of the privileged class a significant advantage in what is otherwise an extremely competitive test.
The BCS examination was once a highly revered system that underpinned the nation’s civil service. Today, many see it as at risk of complete collapse. The debate that emerges on the eve of each BCS cycle revolves around the contention that merit is being removed from consideration in the civil service.
The BCS preliminary exam screens candidates from across the nation for an interview followed by a written test. Success in both preliminary and written exams relies more on cramming than on analytical skills or critical thinking.
This year, some 250,000 candidates took the preliminary MCQ test. Only twelve thousand passed, prompting the demonstrations. After a subsequent review, four times as many were given a passing grade.
The Bangladesh Public Service Commission (BPSC) reportedly sets a cut-off score in this preliminary test, but the score is never revealed. This lack of transparency is the start of the problems.
Those who pass the preliminary test sit a comprehensive written examination. After the completion of this second stage, a merit list is published. Again, the BPSC never publishes the cumulative score of the candidates.
Moreover, the BPSC maintains a unique quota system. Under this system, 45% of successful candidates come from the merit lists, while the remainder come from certain categories of students nominated by the BPSC. Specifically, 30% of places are awarded to dependents of freedom fighters, while the remainder are given to female, tribal and general quotas, with females for instance having 10% of places reserved. More recently, a 1% quota has been added for disabled students.
The diminishing role of merit is angering many students, who claim the system discriminates. This year, that anger erupted into demonstration. The discontent is exacerbated by the lack of transparency. Not only are actual scores not published, but the BPSC doesn’t even release the correct answers to the preliminary questions. Consequently, controversy arises after each preliminary examination over the correct answer to certain questions.
Given how veiled the examination process remains, even highly competent students must simply hope for the best while preparing for the worst.
Some critics claim that the government uses this lack of transparency to populate the civil service with like-minded thinkers. Others ask why the grandchildren of freedom fighters, 42 years after the war of liberation, ought to be given preference. Justifiable as pride in the country’s bravest sons may be, the practice runs counter to the very values that the fighters were supposed to be defending. These values are enshrined in the Constitution, which states in Section 19.1, “The State shall endeavor to ensure equality of opportunity to all citizens.” Given that provision, the constitutionality of the quota system is questionable.
Opportunities for normal (i.e., poor) students are thus slim. And even if some meritorious candidates do pass, their future in the civil service is uncertain. Nepotism, political considerations, forced resignation as well as bribery to achieve early promotion have corrupted Bangladesh’s administrative system over the years. Frustration among the cadres in institutions nationwide is rife.
A national bureaucracy that does not reward merit is unlikely to keep pace with a rapidly changing world. An ineffective civil service is simply a national burden. Look at India – which employs a somewhat similar entrance examination to Bangladesh’s, but benefits from a meritocracy. Now it is an emerging power, one of the BRICS. Bangladesh most decidedly is not.
After all, competence matters. Just not in Bangladesh’s civil service, apparently.