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Opinion

August 12, 2017

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Accountability and the sins of omissions

Accountability and the sins of omissions

Accountability has two components: answering for the sins of commission and subsequently for the sins of omission. Some time back, the press reported that transactional corruption costs the country Rs10 billion rupees every day. These transgressions of the law constitute the sins of commission, which are valued at Rs350 billion annually. NAB, FIA, the Public Accounts Committees and the anti-corruption agencies are mandated by the law to tackle such occurrences.

What is two or maybe even ten times more serious are the sins of omission that do not appear in the rule books or on the auditor’s radar. For example, the failure to construct the Kalabagh Dam – for whatever reason – costs the country an annual loss in electricity generation of 12 billion energy units (3,500 MW capacity) and results in the inability to store about six million acre-feet of precious irrigation water.

This combined loss amounts to over $3 billion annually or Rs 350 billion for one project only. Likewise, KP is losing Rs40 million every month for over two years because of the failure to connect transmission lines to two hydropower plants that were completed in 2015. These and dozens of other similar practices are sins of omission. But no one has been made accountable for such losses.

There is a favoured dictum in Pakistan that is followed religiously by almost all bureaucrats: ‘take an initiative for public good and be damned; take none and prosper’ (Believe me I know). This is why there is so much deprivation all around: too much is left undone and no one is held accountable for the lapses.

No wonder, there are so many metaphoric ‘kalabaghs’ in the country. The low literacy levels, the high population growth, flood damages, the devastation of the environment, unbuilt mega projects like Diamer-Bhasha, Munda-Mohmand and Akhori dams cost us tens of billions of dollars annually. Someone or the other has been responsible for these sins of omissions.

Historically in Pakistan, the institution of accountability never really got off the ground. During the past 70 years, only the ‘outsiders’ were subjected to accountability by those who wielded power. President Ayub ‘Ebdoed’ the politicians, General Yahya focused on 303 corrupt civil officials, Bhutto randomly targeted 1,300 others and Musharraf exempted those suspected politicians who sided with him. General Hamid Khan tried but failed to act in accordance with his conscience in KP. Now Sindh has come out with another ‘ingenious’ formula.

This must be remedied. Three changes must be considered by the policymakers. First, all accountability organisations, starting from the planning commissions (provincial ones included) and the PAC, ought to be constitutionally responsible for the sins of omission in addition to sins of commission.

Simultaneously, a 20-year National Development Consensus Plan must be developed among all provinces, regions and political groups. Thereafter, these projects must be generously funded and no delays ought to be tolerated so that the benefits start accruing quickly to the economy. I recall, with much anguish, the reply of a top politician of the country some time back when he declined to adequately fund a major water sector project. He said the project “was started before our government”.

Second, those who wield political power should be isolated from appointing those who oversee accountability. I have known most of those who headed the main accountability setup and have found them to be both competent and very fine gentlemen. The fault did not lie with them. It actually lies with the accountability structure itself and our cultural conditioning. In our socio-cultural environment – where ethnic, professional, filial and family ties take precedence over official obligations – it simply is not possible for functionaries to initiate action against those who appointed them.

In terms of our obligations, we are not as fair and unbiased as the Germans or the English. Field Marshal Manstein had two fellow aristocratic Junker subalterns court martialed and shot for unbecoming conduct during the war. Would this happen in Pakistan? For us, ‘awal khesh baad dervish’ is an article of faith. These personal, family and tribal relationships have to be dispensed with if we are to create an aseptic environment where objectivity reigns.

The chairmen of NAB and FIA –in addition to other important positions such as heads of State Bank, PIA and Securities Commission – may be selected from a panel of three suitable people recommended by a larger body that comprising an equal number parliamentarians and officials, serving and retired. For a precedent, the Central Selection Board for the promotion of the senior-most bureaucrats already has parliamentarians on it. Alternatively, the superior courts may be involved in the selection process as in KP. The unbridled discretion in selection is not available even in the US.

Third, there is a need to add greater impact to accountability in Pakistan. In India, there is a Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) with a statutory status. The CVC is responsible for the efficient functioning of the Central Bureau of Investigations. The “CBI shall report to the CVC about cases taken up by it for investigation, progress of investigation, cases in which charge-sheets are filed and their progress. The CVC shall review the progress of all cases moved by the CBI for sanction of prosecution of public servants which are pending with the competent authorities, especially those in which sanction has been delayed or refused”.

This can be replicated in Pakistan to create an objective and just mechanism to address the issue of effective accountability. It would require the appointment of between four to six experienced and reputable evaluation/accountability commissioners (like the vigilance commissioners in India who supervise the CBI). They could be selected by the superior courts or through another fair process and would be bound by an oath of office. Anyone with the required competence, cited experience and sound reputation would be eligible.

These tenured commissioners alone would determine and order whether a source report will be converted into an enquiry, an enquiry into an investigation and investigation into a reference. The chairman of NAB and FIA and the hierarchy under them would then be responsible for gathering evidence and intelligence, developing enquiries and investigations and then prosecuting cases in courts. This process would redress the ills that are currently being alleged. No one could then blame the heads of the accountability organisations of bias or prejudice.

Finally, the operational accountability arrangements may require some fine-tuning. Accountability should be such that it does not paralyse prompt decision-making, which has been a problem since Musharraf’s days. The decision-making personnel or forums have to be provided adequate discretion and their reasons for arriving at their decisions should be recorded.

Remember: one decision in four could go wrong – as in any war. Moreover, all decision-makers, right up to the secretaries, ministers, chief ministers and prime ministers, must be obligated to place their personal signatures under their orders to testify to their responsibilities – as was the case in Pakistan till the mid-1970s. No subordinates should record their orders vicariously.

Finally, plea bargaining and the voluntary return of misappropriated money is a useful and accepted practice worldwide because it saves time and effort. However, we must add the condition that those accepting such arrangements must return the full criminal proceeds accumulated and cease to hold office thereafter.

The writer has served as the chief secretary of GB, AJK, KP and Sindh and was the chairman of Wapda and the Pakistan Railways.

Email: [email protected]

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