Last year, a big petroleum crisis struck Pakistan when, all of a sudden, petrol disappeared from most of the filling stations across the country.
The situation remained as such for a couple of weeks but no tangible reason for this crisis came from the government side that fueled all kind of rumors and speculations.
The crisis erupted in May last when petrol prices were slashed by seven rupees for a liter in the wake of slump in international prices because of Covid-19 pandemic.
After this decision, petrol disappeared from all filling stations except the state-run Pakistan State Oil stations.
The crisis prompted the prime minister to order an inquiry and four oil marketing companies were also fined with 40 million rupees, but these action failed to end the crisis.In late June, the petroleum prices were unprecedentedly raised by over 25 rupees for a liter which ended the “shortage” within hours.It took Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) at least six months to submit its inquiry report with a government-appointed ministerial committee.
On Friday, Planning Minister Asad Umar announced recommendations of the ministerial committee before the media.
According to the minister, the prime minister has asked his Advisor on Petroleum Minister Nadeem Babar to step down to allow an “impartial” forensic inquiry.
The secretary for the petroleum division was also transferred to another ministry in this regard.
The planning minister said so far no wrongdoing has been detected on the part of the two officials of the petroleum ministry but they were being sidelined to allow an independent inquiry that could not be “influenced” by any quarter.
While Pakistanis would like to see those responsible for creating this crisis would be held accountable, the government’s belated decisions have raised many questions.
It has been almost a year since the crisis hit the country and millions of rupees were believed to have been siphoned off during the acute “shortage” that continued for several weeks.
Prime Minister Imran Khan, while in opposition, was known for setting very high standards for accountability of the top government officials in such national crisis. So, the first thing that people expected from him was immediate removal of top ministry officials before any inquiry was even ordered.
It is strange that after passage of nearly a year the inquiry cannot find any clue about who was responsible for this crisis and another three months have been sought to hold forensic studies.
Moreover, if track record of the current government in dealing with such inquiries and subsequent actions are any guide, than one doubts if any tangible result would come out of such inquiries.
The government had last year commissioned a joint investigation led by FIA to look into the sugar mafia. The report pin pointed influential political families running major sugar mills in the country and held them responsible for the scandal. They were estimated to have pocketed over 100 billion rupees through speculative pricing.
Now an FIR has been registered against senior political figures from the ruling and opposition parties, and it would not be interesting to see if any genuine efforts would be taken to bring the culprits to book or it would just be a political stunt to deceive masses.
The present government since its inception has launched a massive anti-corruption campaign as accountability has been its main agenda in its election campaign.
Unfortunately, despite much pomp and show the conviction rate in the corruption cases has been negligible.
Now even the government ministers have started criticising the anti-corruption watchdog, National Accountability Bureau (NAB), over its dismal performance. The working of the NAB has been questioned even by the judiciary.
The Supreme Court in one of its landmark judgements in Khawaja Saad Rafique and Khawaja Salam Rafiq’s of the PML-N case has noted that the NAB, set up during the military rule of President General Pervez Musharraf, was abused for political engineering.
While people would like to see the corruption cases involving mega scandals and influential figures come to their logical end, the government also needs to take requisite steps to make the accountability process genuine and credible.
The Amnesty International in its yearly report has found that corruption index has gone up for Pakistan. However, the government has neither taken any measures to curb corruption nor made the entire process credible.
After winning the vote of confidence from the National Assembly, the prime minister in his speech assured full cooperation to the judiciary on the part of his government in deciding the mega scandals. However, the government needs to review the laws governing these issues and plug loopholes that are hampering the accountability process.
This objective can only be achieved if government and opposition join hands and cooperate with each other to bring up the required legislation.
The government needs to take up the petroleum crisis as a test case and it needs to address the reasons that are causing unnecessary delay in meeting the legal formalities to refer the matter to the courts.
Undue delay in investigations, weak prosecution and use of political influences are some of the reasons that do not let such mega scandals come to their logical end.
Traditionally, as pointed out by the Supreme Court too, the accountability process has largely been used in Pakistan to victimise political opposition.
The government needs to take the opposition into confidence and try to remove these complaints that have stigmatised the accountability process.
With government already half-way through its five-year term and amidst rising tensions with the opposition, it is a big challenge to remove widespread reservations on the accountability process.
The PTI fought the 2018 election on a highly popular one-point agenda of accountability and it would be confronted with questions about its performance in fulfilling its promises when it would go to the people to seek their votes in the next election.
Law-making in the parliament on accountability-related issues and the fate of mega corruption scams would be a big test for the incumbent government in the run-up to the next elections.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Islamabad