The Toshakhana report raises questions of propriety among the ruling elite
he Toshakhana disclosures have exposed the conduct of some of the recent holders of public office and raised questions about the morality of their actions. The controversy surrounding these has once again highlighted the need for greater transparency and consistent accountability.
A list of Toshakhana beneficiaries, which had been classified secret for 21 years, has recently been made public. Toshakhana is the department of the government that monitors and looks after the gifts presented to state officials by representatives of other countries. The disclosure has shown that political leaders across party lines took advantage of the lax rules pertaining to receiving official gifts. The fact was not shared with public for a long time. There have been rumors and leaks from time to time and questions have sometimes been raised about the legality and morality of the actions taken by these state officials. It now appears that there has been consistent underreporting/ assessment of value of the gifts.
The release of a 446-page list by the Cabinet Division, carrying details of Toshakhana beneficiaries from 2002 onwards, follows a petition before the Lahore High Court by Advocate Azhar Siddique. The court had expressed dissatisfaction with an earlier report and asked for a verified record of the Toshakhana beneficiaries from the authorities. It has also directed the authorities to also provide the details of Toshakhana beneficiaries from 1990 to 2001.
The Toshakhana operates under the administrative control of the federal government’s Cabinet Division. It is responsible for safekeeping of gifts from foreign countries or heads of state to Pakistani rulers, parliamentarians and bureaucrats. The Division is also responsible for enforcement of rules under which the gifts can be retained/ obtained for private use.
The record shows that politicians in power and bureaucrats received gifts worth over Rs 260 million over the past 21 years. Many of these gifts were retained without any payments. Others were acquired by making payments, totaling Rs 56.7 million, after an evaluation by the Toshakhana.
According to the report, the gifts included luxury apparel, jewellery and designer watches. The demand for the release of this list grew louder some months ago when some individuals moved the court for information about the gifts received by Khan and his family during his tenure as the prime minister of the country. The PTI appeared hesitant to provide the details to the court.
The rules were relaxed so that many recipients kept the gifts while making nominal fractions of their value.
There are many instances of underreporting of the “assessed values” of the gifts. This allowed the recipients to keep the gifts by paying a fraction of the price they would have had to pay if they’d been assessed fairly. This points to a culture of corruption. While most of the gifts were acquired in nominal compliance of rules, some recipients blatantly violated the rules.
While the rules were not openly violated in most cases, the data shows that the relevant rules were ‘relaxed’ to allow payment of a nominal fraction of the estimated (often undervalued) price of the gifts.
The retained gifts included shirts, handkerchiefs, fabric for shirts, bed sheets, watches, fruits, ornamental daggers, cufflinks, phones and watches. Former prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, tops the list, having retained around 800 gifts.
Former president Asif Ali Zardari received 182 presents and retained almost all of those. This included some very expensive ones. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his wife received 65 presents and former prime minister Imran Khan 111.
In 2018, the amount payable for the gifts was raised to 50 percent of the assessed value. It had been 10 percent in 2001 and 20 percent during 2001-2018.
After the disclosure the rules have been further amended. The new policy places a $300 ceiling on gifts that can be retained by the recipients. The new guidelines are outlined in the Toshakhana Procedure for the Acceptance and Disposal of Gifts, 2023, which also provides a new set of guidelines for ministries and divisions involved.
The new rules state that gifts above the value of $300 will become the property of the state. There is some flexibility in the policy regarding perishable items that may be retained without reporting. The new policy also prohibits government officials from accepting gifts for their spouses or family members. If a gift cannot be declined, it must be immediately deposited with the Toshakhana. Gifts that cannot be retained, donated, or displayed must be publicly auctioned once or twice a year by a committee set up for the purpose. Antiques are to be placed in museums or displayed in official government buildings. Vehicles are to become part of the central pool under the Cabinet Division.
Former federal minister Fawad Chaudhry has since requested information about gifts retained by military officers and judges. He has also called on the Lahore High Court to establish an independent commission to examine the Toshakhana records.
The writer is a memberof staff and can be reached at vaqargillanigmail.com and waqargillani