Saturday June 22, 2024

Longest serving NAB detainee: Ahad Cheema’s bail plea comes up for hearing before LHC tomorrow

By Tariq Butt
March 29, 2020

ISLAMABAD: The Lahore High Court (LHC) takes up on Monday (tomorrow) after almost a year the bail plea of prominent bureaucrat Ahad Cheema, the longest serving detainee of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), in two cases.

The bail application has been pending disposal since March 2019. A brief hearing was held on March 24. It was postponed to March 30 as the judges stated that they have not read the case file. Cheema was arrested by the NAB in February, 2018 initially in the Ashiana Housing Scheme. Except him, all the accused in this case including Shahbaz Sharif, Fawad Hasan Fawad, Bilal Kidwai, Imtiaz Haider and others have been granted bails by superior courts.

During his custody, the NAB opened investigation against Cheema on the charge of assets beyond means and Lahore Development Authority (LDA) City Housing Scheme. However, after 16 months, the NAB closed the LDA City case, and resultantly, the accountability gave him bail in it.

The story of a number of cases, probed and subsequently shut, against the District Management Group (DMG) officer presents an instructive picture, according to the details provided by informed people during on-the-record and off-the-record discussions to The News.

The NAB executive board recently approved closure of an inquiry against Quaid-i-Azam Thermal Company (QATPL), which had set up the famous 1181MW Bhikki Power Plant, one of the biggest power projects in Punjab’s history in terms of cost.

A few weeks earlier, the NAB also shut the inquiry against Punjab Thermal Power Company (PTPL), which is undertaking 1181MW Punjab Power Plant at Jhang, another project of the same scale and magnitude. The cost of both the projects combined is around $2 billion, equivalent to Rs300 billion.

However, the person responsible for successful completion of Bhikki Power Plant and contracting of Jhang plant, former CEO Cheema continues to be in jail, for 25 months now in connection with Ashiana Housing Scheme, which was never executed.

Chaudry Arif Saeed, who has been Chairman of the QATPL board, and is scion of leading business family of Punjab called the Service Group, directly supervised the establishment of 1181MW Bhikki plant. “This plant was set up not only in a record time of around two and a half years, but it was also the cheapest project executed in Pakistan’s history. Actually, it was world’s lowest price for any gas-based power plant. Against the upfront tariff of $7,91,000 per MW for EPC [energy performance certificate] cost, Bhikki project was set up at $4,66,000 per megawatt,” Arif Saeed said.

A senior civil servant requesting anonymity shared that the Jhang plant was contracted at $4,18,000 per MW, beating the world’s lowest cost (Bhikki) by another 10 percent. He said that all other projects executed in Pakistan both in public and private sector were executed at almost double cost (Uch-II $0.987 million, Fauji Daharki $0.929 million, Halmore $0.824 million and Guddu $0.836 million). Plant efficiency of Bhikki is over 61 percent as against highest previous benchmark of 54 percent, thus saving billion of rupees in fuel every year.

Arif Saeed said that total saving in project cost achieved by the Bhikki plant against the benchmark of the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority (Nepra) was Rs53 billion (Pak-dollar conversion rate being Rs105 per dollar).

Lifetime saving of the project passed on to consumers in tariff is Rs363 billion. Total saving in project cost achieved by Punjab plant against the Nepra benchmark was Rs78 billion. Lifetime saving of the project passed on to consumers in tariff is Rs441 billion.

The Bhikki plant has been running successfully for almost two years now and as a result, the Punjab government, being its owner, has earned Rs6.4 billion profit till December 2019.

Arif Saeed said that Bhikki plant was set up through 75 percent bank loan. It was one of the biggest projects financed by a consortium of Pakistani banks without any government guarantee, and that too in a record time. Being first RLNG based project, all project documents and agreements were finalised for the first time.

The project finance facility was extended because of reputation of its management, mainly Chief Minister Shahbaz Shareef and CEO Cheema, who were known for successful execution of projects, he said.

Another senior bureaucrat, who served in Punjab during Shahbaz Sharif’s government, said that Cheema was also part of the team, which successfully negotiated Orange Line Metro Train Project, and saved Rs55 billion post-bidding. When civil works were transferred to the LDA, another Rs6-7 billion were saved on account of competitive bidding, under Cheema as the LDA chief.

The civil works were at an advanced stage of completion when Cheema was arrested in February 2018. In May 2018, the then Punjab chief minister also witnessed a partial test run of train. Now, after 25 months, the Orange Line is still not completed because of lack of professional leadership of the project.

When Cheema was arrested in connection with Ashiana project and in which the LDA’s role was only of a consultant or technical adviser, the government system did not support him at all.

What to speak of legal fee and other requirements, he was immediately suspended and left to face the consequences on his own. Political parties also took maximum advantage of his arrest during the general elections. During his detention, he was arrested in another case of assets beyond means – a typical tool of the NAB.

He was investigated in Ashiana Housing Scheme; Quaid-i-Azam Thermal Company (Bhikki power plant); Punjab Thermal Power Company (Jhang power plant Jhang); LDA City Housing Scheme; Paragon City Housing Scheme; Lahore metro bus, other LDA projects; and River Ravi Urban Front Development Project.

After Cheema had completed the 90-day physical remand and was sent to the judicial custody, the NAB made another bid in September 2018 for seeking his physical custody by arresting him in the third case (LDA City). The accountability court, however, refused the physical remand on the grounds that he was already investigated in this case during the first physical custody. Cheema had been detained by the NAB immediately before Shahbaz Sharif’s arrest in the Ashiana case.

After keeping Cheema in custody in the LDA city case for 16 months, the NAB recently stated in LHC that it has no case against him and the matter is being closed.

Cheema, nicknamed as metroman in civil service, was instrumental in completion of Lahore metro bus in a record time of 8-9 months. Its per kilometer cost was Rs1.1 billion whereas Rawalpindi and Multan metros costed Rs1.4 billion-Rs1.7 billion. Their construction time was also double as compared to Lahore metro despite having same contractors, consultants and engineering staff. The Peshawar metro is costing well over Rs2 billion per kilometer and only the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government knows when it will be completed.