A roof for all public servants - Ikram Sehgal - Thursday, January 27, 2011

Source : www.thenews.com.pk

The major factor fuelling corruption is that public servants dread their life after retirement. Remaining honest and depending on their meagre savings and pension means they cannot maintain the same lifestyle they had been leading. Given today’s prices and rents, they are not wrong, their abiding fear of not having a roof over their head commensurate to that what they were used to is more than justified. Present pensions translate into a meagre living, in today’s inflated conditions. Being forced into a diminished lifestyle socially, even below the poverty-line, is a psychological bugbear driving even the most honest public servant into corrupt practices, he uses the present to make his future bright.

With a good salary, boarding and lodging and other perks, armed forces may be better paid but soldiers face early retirement, age matters in a physically exacting service. To compensate their “half career”, soldiers are better rewarded than their civilian counterparts in terms of post-retirement inferiority complex. While the officer corps is provided a roof over their heads, nothing similar exists for soldiers down the line. One believes Kayani is now partially addressing this glaring anomaly, or should I say, absolute and abiding disgrace.

We only give lip-service to the “glory and honour” of our regiment (read country) coming first, the “welfare and contentment” of our command next and our own “safety and comfort” coming last. With most welfare directed towards the upper military hierarchy, a judicious distribution of the rapid depletion of available resources was always on the cards.

The army housing scheme was started by General Zia in 1985 to enable retiring officers to find respectable shelter to lead their retirement lives. To keep the element of incentive alive, a formal welfare policy was introduced by Musharraf as late as 2005; Kayani restored some balance by making 2008 “The Year of the Soldier”.

Houses in the army housing scheme, later adopted by the PAF and the Pakistan Navy, were initially allotted to majors and lieutenant colonels, later it included higher ranks. The sizes and designs vary from rank to rank from majors, right up to brigadiers, the cost varying from station to station, design to design and in rare cases, size to size.

Majors and lieutenant colonels get ten to twelve marla houses, colonels get houses of fourteen marlas and brigadiers of one kanal. Major generals and lieutenant generals are given their own choice of station where land is available to construct houses of their own designs. Officers initially were required to become members voluntarily by paying initial membership fee.

Nowadays membership is mandatory, officers paying monthly instalments till they retire from service. The remaining cost, varying from Rs4 million to Rs5 million, is to be paid at the time of taking over of the house. The balance is met by the retired officers on computation of pension. Bereaved families get their house free of cost and the amount deposited is refunded. Unfortunately the cost of construction has increased abnormally; officers now have to cater for more than what is available after commutation, turning for inordinate loans to banks, paying huge monthly instalments and exorbitant mark-ups. The concept of welfare of forced saving and freedom from hassle of construction has now become not only infructuous but counter-productive as officers scramble to pay the difference.

To maintain that allotment of plots was meant primarily as an incentive measure, so that officers took more interest in their profession is nonsense; it is a sleight of hand to offset the balance left towards final payment for their house/apartments. Majors get one residential plot of one kanal with twenty three years of service. Lieutenant colonels get two plots of the same size and second anywhere in the country after twenty five years of service. Colonels and brigadiers get similar-sized residential plots after completing 28 years. Major generals get four residential plots of same size after 32 years of service. Lieutenant generals get different scale and sizes of welfare/incentive residential plots.

The rates of these residential plots vary from location to location in the country. This by itself is cause for considerable heartburn! Commercial plots are allocated purely on the basis of outstanding record of the officers. Barren agriculture land is also allocated in different parts of the country; conversion into crops cultivation benefits both themselves and the country as a whole.

No one should be given government owned plots and agricultural land except for extraordinary achievement, eg bravery in action. Welfare should not be confined to the armed forces and to officers alone, welfare is the right of all public servants. Instead doling out plots (government land) and making real estate brokers out of our officer corps, an innovative scheme to ensure a roof over the heads of all public servants on retirement would benefit both the country and people across the board.

No individual can really afford a house or an apartment on a public servant’s salary, yet having a residential unit, preferably an apartment is a must, whatever his grade on the same concept as the army housing scheme for every public servant, uniformed or civilian. When the person completes the mandated service requirement, this must be guaranteed commensurate to the rank on retirement. Ten per cent of the salary should be deducted right from the start of their career irrespective of grade. The state must pay the balance remaining the construction cost, not through commutation of pension.

A retired person can survive on his full pension without being forced to live hand-to-mouth. Houses should be given only to Grade 22 or above, everyone else must get an apartment. The apartment units cannot be allowed to be sold for at least five years, however the individual can draw a loan to meet family compulsions, eg marriage of children, education, etc. And they should only be given apartments of several categories, with each category having minimum two, three and maximum four bedrooms configurations.

The state should plan new futuristic village-type townships near all towns and cities so that retired public servants can opt to live near their permanent homes. The annual requirement for retirees would be anything between 75000 - 100000 units, maybe even more.

The construction boom because of “housing starts” will fuel a tremendous economic activity in the country. With planned housing, quality infra-structure of water, sewerage, electricity, transportation, education, sports and medical facilities, etc should also be futuristic. Construction contracts must be given out to the private sector. Financial institutions and insurance companies can make the scheme more attractive and far more economically viable.

The economic activity generated will be a force multiplied by the services sector which will develop in the townships. With a roof ensured over his head on retirement, the public servant can devote his energies to achieve the reality of good governance this nation badly craves for.

There is an all-important caveat; anybody found indulging in corruption should be deprived of this “carrot”. The stick should be severe punishment to ensure honesty is the touchstone of this scheme. That “Sword of Damocles” of gambling a commensurate roof over their heads on retirement would be enough “incentive” for public servants to stay honest through their career.

The writer is a defence and political analyst. Email: isehgal@pathfinder9.com

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