After three days of intense demonstrations around the country against quotas in public service, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced on Wednesday in an impassioned address to parliament that there would be no more quotas for government jobs in future.
Speaking in parliament, the prime minister criticized the protesters for not accepting the government’s offer to reconsider the quota issue and come up with a workable solution in one month's time.
“All of a sudden the students say that they don’t want quotas. They launch a movement, stop attending classes, and block the roads. They stop patients from getting to hospitals, people from getting to work.
“Why make the public suffer? Let’s just stop this suffering and all this demonstration and trouble once and for all. Let’s cancel the quotas. I think that’s for the best,” she said.
‘Quotas were introduced for a reason’
A visibly angered Hasina deplored the protesters and pointed out that the quotas were put in place by previous Awami League governments in order to ensure equal opportunity, as mandated by the constitution.
“The constitution says no group should face discrimination. Small ethnic groups, women, people with disabilities – they should not be deprived. The quotas were created for that reason.”
“When I came to power in 1996, there were no female secretaries, no women in top government posts, senior police officials, or a High Court judge.
“In the Pakistan era, there were laws against women entering the judiciary. After the liberation, the Father of the Nation changed that and introduced a 10% quota for women.
“I worked the hardest to empower women. I put women everywhere. Now the girls are saying they don’t want the quota. They said they will compete in the exams. I am glad to hear that. If even the girls don’t want quotas, let’s just scrap the whole quota system,” PM Hasina said.
The prime minister added: “Classes and exams were suspended at all universities and the public are suffering from severe traffic jam due to the demonstrations.”
She said the students had demonstrated enough and “now we want them to return to their classes.”
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The premier, however, added that the government would still create job opportunities for people with disabilities and from small ethnic groups after abolishing the quota system.
'I was worried for their safety'
Hasina said her government took into account the students demand and the issue was discussed in the cabinet meeting, a day into the demonstrations.
“Road Transport Minister Obaidul Quader was given the task to discuss with them and I asked the cabinet secretary to examine the issue and hold discussions with all concerned.”
"Many students accepted our word and many did not. . . many students stayed at TSC the whole entire night. Why it happened when the discussion was underway and what was the justification to continue the movement?" she asked.
Sheikh Hasina, who is an alumna of Dhaka University, said female students came out of their dormitories late at night and she could not sleep all night because she was worried for their safety.
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"I kept calling the authorities, and I sent Nanak along with Chhatra League president and secretary to hold discussions with them," she said.
The premier said her government was running the state on a principle and it was very much aware of the wellbeing of the students.
“We have established universities, extended scholarships to students. A developed country is built on an educated population, education is our top priority.”
“Whatever positions under quota remain vacant, we always fill them up from the merit list,” she said particularly referring to the 33rd, 35th and 36th BCS examinations.
“Otherwise how do 70% get appointed from the merit list?”
“All BCS candidates have merit. “The quota system served to represent underprivileged groups in the public sector, to give them a fair chance.”
Currently, 56% of all jobs in the public sector are reserved for quota groups, while 44% are filled from the merit list. Of the quotas, 30% are for freedom fighters and their descendants, 10% for women, 10% based on districts and 5% for national minority groups.
Students and job seekers began protesting against the quota system, demanding a reform, in mid-February. A road blockade that began at Shahbagh on Sunday evening turned violent after a police crackdown, and demonstrations escalated in the last three days.