Largely unknown to the outside world, Sarfaraz Hotel is a small, dingy place, tucked in a narrow alley behind Government Officers Residence, off the Upper Mall in Lahore. From there, turning towards China Chowk, after 2-3 blocks, a small alley leads you to the area that has come to be known as Patiala House. A fortune-teller narrates that it is named after the Maharaja of Patiala who used to have his stables in the area.
The place instantly strikes you with the ubiquitous display of colorful wall posters and advertisements by countless “academies” and instructors offering tuition services. Many in-service CSS officers announce their coaching schedule – all guaranteeing success. The hub of these activities is none other than the celebrated Sarfaraz Hotel. Some coaching advertisers even list it as their “business” address.
Day in and day out, it is frequented by aspiring bureaucrats. Throngs of students getting ready to sit for the Competitive Examination, with laptop bags hanging from their shoulders and clutching a load of booty (pun intended) are seen patronizing the place from early morning till late night. Sipping countless cups of heavily sweetened milk tea (dudh patti) for hours, these poor souls, suffering pangs of hunger after long and intense group discussions, end up ordering from the hand-written menu where prices have been over-written for umpteen times. There is usually a solo copy of an Urdu newspaper equally shared by all visitors. Brisk business thrives at Sarfaraz Hotel.
The area is infested with small, dimly-lit rooms being used, more than once a day, as lecture halls by the so-called academies and the individual trainers. There is a flourishing business for rental rooms where over-crowding is not uncommon. Out-of-town students find it convenient to share-rent a little shelter, munch at Sarfaraz, and attend lectures at nearby halls. Nearly all the inhabitants of the area are male.
One wonders where the female aspirants go for months of intense preparation for the CSS examination. Some woman entrepreneur may look into the feasibility for emulating a Sarfaraz for girls.
It is written on the wall that both the teachers and the taught are seeking and pursuing short-cuts. Federal Public Service Commission, the body responsible for conducting the examination for the yearly induction of bureaucrats into service, makes it clear that it is neither a speculative test nor a test of one’s ability for rote learning. It requires substantive knowledge and general competence in broad areas of learning.
The extent of compulsory subjects testifies the Commission’s stance. Yet, the atmosphere at Sarfaraz and its environs is bent at flouting the system. The subject “notes” and “how-to-do” or “to-the-point” guides exchange hands in an obsessive manner. The past papers, available in public domain, are treated like precious archaeological finds to establish pointers for a possible pattern.
The Patiala House has its own share of the legend: Nearly a decade ago, a local daily flashed the success story of Patiala House saying that “For the first time in its history, 15 residents of Patiala House passed the Central Superior Services (CSS) Examination, 2008.” How this “success” was measured is anybody’s guess.
Today’s ground reality, according to a senior police officer from Khyber-Pakhtukhwah is that recently “13,170 candidates appeared in the CSS exams; 439 passed the written exam … In 2013, 14,335 candidates applied to appear in the CSS exams, 10,006 appeared in them and 588 were declared successful in the written test.” This incredibly high percentage of failure (97.14) is attributed by the author to “Poor communication, weak analytical skills, inadequate knowledge of Pakistan and its civic issues, and poor general knowledge.”
The rot at the root does not fail to reach the top. In a recent screening test conducted by the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), out of a total of 264 officers of the Ministry of Commerce desiring appointment as Trade Attaché at Pakistan missions abroad, only 62 managed to pass. “A senior official at the Ministry of Commerce confirmed that most senior bureaucrats, seeking the position, hadfailed to qualify.”
The collusion of happy-go-lucky “academies,” the avarice of in-service CSS officers for making a few extra bucks, and the willingness of our future bureaucrats to pursue the path of pre-cooked questionnaires conspire to maintain the incredibly high failure rate for the CSS examinations. Once the few lucky ones qualify to join the service, the reality of their competence is exposed when put to test.
Neither this country nor those who desire to serve its bureaucracy deserve to be treated like dirt. The grace, the poise, and the intellectual acumen required of these examinations and subsequent opportunities for national service call for a sea change in attitudes towards the entire process.
We must infuse a spirit of respect into our bureaucratic system – from its genesis to its flourishing – if we desire efficiency and transparency in the system. The “booty” culture must be rooted out towards a holistic vision where intellectual and academic competence is not only encouraged and admired but duly rewarded. Though we can still enjoy a cuppa at Sarfaraz.