By Asghar Soomro
President-elect Donald Trump has announced he will leave his business empire to avoid perceived conflicts of interest but expecting the similar thing from our politicians would be a naive idea. On the contrary, our leaders announce jobs and contracts for party loyalists as soon as they take charge of the public office. So, in this context it is a welcome move that Government of Sindh is contemplating to introduce a conflict of interest bill, 2016. The contents of the bill were discussed at length in the last cabinet meeting held in September 2016 but after that there has been no significant progress on this score, pending cabinet meeting. After K-P, Sindh would be the second province to make legislation in this regard.
Where is the impetus coming from? Actually, a couple of months back, Additional Inspector General, Head of Counter-terrorism Department, Sindh Sanaullah Abassi had conducted an inquiry against a police officer of grade 19 and found him a guilty as prima facie allegations stood substantiated. Further, following the principle of transparency, fairness, impartiality and accountability across the board Mr Abassi recommended that all similar nature cases should be sorted out to take necessary action against grade 17 and above officers. Also he suggested to Inspector General Sindh Police, Mr AD Khawaja to move the letter to Government of Sindh to pass a legislation relating to conflict of interest in order to hamper or eradicate the corporate and criminal policing. Reason behind an emphasis on action against grade 17 and onwards is that only low rank officers are held accountable while senior officers enjoy impunity. Hence, source of problem remains there. This is a bold and courageous recommendation from Mr Abassi with a strong potential to make him unpopular in the fraternity. A large number of police officers have set up their own petrol filling stations embezzling public funds. As a result, the public has started calling Pakistan Police Service (PSP) as a Petroleum Police Service!! Besides that police officers have been involved in various other businesses, which are in a conflict with their prime duty and functions. They are involved in land grabbing and other crimes. Currently, 25-30 senior police officers are facing different inquiries. According to Mr Abassi, during office hours, they do private work/business at the cost of office work. A sample verification of their call data will surely lend credence to his claim.
This is just a tip of the iceberg; the malaise has badly affected all sections of society. It appears that using position or institution to private advantage has been a trend. Apparently, police is taking a cue from security establishment which has set up a business empire in Pakistan. Readers may remember that Justice Gulzar and Justice Khilji Arif of Supreme Court had also expressed their unhappiness over Rangers’ partnership in filling station’s business in Sindh. They observed that if Rangers was so interested in business, they should leave their actual assignment (security duty) and start selling wheat, pulses, rice and other commodities besides petrol.
Apart from Police and Rangers I have personally observed throughout my experience in the education sector that around 70 per cent of private schools are either being run by government teachers or owned by them. Further,Government Engineers have set up their own construction companies and award contracts to them, and there are many others who are involved in this sort of conflict of interest. But, no one bothers about it.
Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is the only political party which is spearheading a debate on the issue of conflict of interest. Despite resistance from treasury benches and opposition, this year PTI managed to pass K-P Prevention of Conflict of Interest Bill 2016, though it has become toothless now as they reduced it from 65 clauses to 25. I approached Naeemul Haq and Asad Umar, top leadership of PTI through Zulfiqar Halepoto to see why they had conceded to so many changes in the bill, which almost killed its spirit. Both leaders were quite straightforward in their comments. They said that it was part of their party manifesto that no office holder of PTI would start new business after coming into power and this aspect hasn’t been compromised in the passed bill. However, when asked what mechanism has been put in place to know about new business or what challenges are being faced in implementation of the bill they said that they didn’t know much about it. Anyway, given prevailing social, cultural, political and economic norms in Pakistan one can understand its implementation would not be an easy task.
Real question is that can we curb corruption through new legislations? I doubt it because a strong nexus has evolved among all vested interests representing politics, business, security establishment and bureaucracy over the years, which have seriously compromised effectiveness of such laws. It would be considered a big success if a minor dent is made as a result of such efforts. Despite National Accountability Bureau, Federal Investigation Agency, Anti-corruption Establishment and other similar institutions corruption is on rise. Everyone is facing serious corruption allegations from the present Prime Minister down to officeholders at union council level. Ironically, nothing has ever been proved against the powerful people, which is an indication of how much effective and independent our institutions are. Action is being taken only against those elements who were operating without patronage or have been disobedient to their ‘masters’ or being made scapegoat to create a fake semblance of justice. Those politicians and bureaucrats’ et al that have siphoned off billions of rupees, giving a huge loss to national exchequer go scot-free while petty criminals are taken to task. Is this a justice? Not at all. So, institutional arrangements must be coupled with a social deterrence in order to curb the menace of bad governance. If society doesn’t consider corruption bad then how can laws stop it?
Published in The Express Tribune, December 17th, 2016.