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April 14, 2021

Fate of NAB action against wheat, sugar mafia unknown

Top Story

April 14, 2021

ISLAMABAD: In April last year, NAB had announced the initiation of a ‘comprehensive’ inquiry into all aspects of the wheat and sugar scandals in the country. However, nothing substantial has come out on this probe so far from the Bureau.

When approached, a spokesman of NAB said that the NAB Rawalpindi office was assigned the inquiry. To a question about the progress so far, the spokesman said, “NAB is probing the sugar and flour scam on merit and transparently as per the law.” The spokesman added: “Sharing of any details of the official proceedings of the probe may affect the probe. Media is requested to kindly avoid speculations in this regard.”

In April 2020, the Bureau in a statement released to the media had announced its decision to probe the wheat and sugar scandals. However, things have proceeded slowly and so far NAB has not taken any major action against those involved.

The sugar tycoons, who came across very badly in the Sugar Commission report, are generally targeted by the FIA and not by NAB. The government reports on the sugar and wheat scandals have also raised questions on the role of several government figures including Chief Minister Punjab Usman Buzdar, Asad Umar, Razak Dawood and others. Hardly any of these persons have been summoned by the Bureau so far.

In June 2020, on the basis of the findings of Sugar Commission, the government had also sent a reference to NAB to investigate a total of over Rs.29 billion subsidy allocated and disbursed to the sugar industry by the provincial and federal governments in the last five years including the subsidy given by the PTI government under the timeline provided by the National Accountability Ordinance.

It was said that NAB would also be requested to probe the issue of subsidies given to the sugar industry from 1985 onwards and to initiate criminal prosecution where evidence of misuse of authority related to subsidy issues are found.

Chief Minister Punjab Usman Buzdar was in focus as the Sugar Commission report not only found the Rs 3bn subsidy given by the Punjab government to sugar mills as “unjustified” but also doubted his statement given before the Commission.

A few weeks before the matter was referred for the consideration of the provincial cabinet and without even waiting for the minutes of the ECC on sugar subsidy, the Punjab government in a meeting chaired by Buzdar had decided in principle to give Rs 3bn subsidy to the sugar mills.

“The Commission is of the view that this subsidy granted is unjustified,” the Sugar Commission report said, adding, “The Chief Minister Punjab pleaded his case that the subsidy was granted by the cabinet and it was a collective decision. However, keeping in view the minutes of the meeting dated 06-12-2018, which the CM Punjab claims to have forgotten, clearly indicates otherwise.”

The report was also critical of Asad Umar and said, “The response of Asad Umar regarding the change of the ECC decision about the freight support (subsidy) by placing it on the discretion of the provinces was found not convincing by the Commission. The reason cited by him was that the lack of legal purview of the federal government to decide a provincial matter of freight support was the reason for this change. But this reason was not reflected in the subsequent decision of the ECC at all and the reason of decision stated, therein, is completely different.”

The report said that Dawood's response regarding the continuation of export of sugar despite the price hike was not found convincing by the Commission. “The Commission has gathered enough evidence to establish that the export of sugar is one of the reasons for the increase in price of sugar in the domestic market as well as other factors like market manipulation, hoarding, forward contracts and ‘satta’ by the sugar sector players,” it added.

Similarly, the FIA’s supplementary report on the wheat scam contains explosive material against Chief Minister Punjab Usman Buzdar for making massive changes in the Food Department that led to the serious flour crisis hitting the country recently.

The FIA probe committee confronted the Chief Minister Punjab Usman Buzdar, who interestingly admitted to have made certain changes in the food department following political pressures.

The report revealed that dozens of officers in the food department were repeatedly posted and transferred on the orders of the chief minister, who also changed four food secretaries in seven months’ time. Even a food secretary told the FIA Committee that many food department officials were transferred on the verbal directions conveyed by the Chief Minister Office.

The FIA’s supplementary report on the wheat scam shows that the inquiry team interviewed the chief minister, who admitted that “it was true that political persons approach the Chief Minister Office for transfers and postings.”

“Most of the transfer postings were done on the proposals initiated by the concerned secretaries, some political proposals were also accommodated but input of the Special Branch was also taken before taking decisions,” the report said.

The Buzdar government had transferred four secretaries in the food department in seven months’ time --from April 2019 to November 2019. All these secretaries were changed by Chief Minister Usman Buzdar.

According to the report, these four food secretaries, except Naseem Sadiq, in turn also resorted to massive posting/transfers of district food controllers (DFCs) and deputy directors. One of these secretaries transferred 35 DFCs only in the month of March 2019. Another secretary food transferred all nine deputy directors posted in the field and changed 32 DFCs.

However, both these secretaries -- Shaukat Ali and Zafar Nasrullah -- stated that due to the ban on all posting/transfers imposed by the competent authority since December 11, 2018 that continued till December 7, 2019, the posting and transfers under their respective tenures were proposed by the respective secretaries but were made only with the approval of the chief minister.

Zafar Nasrullah also cited administrative reasons for the changes made but admitted that the summaries of about half of the postings that he had proposed were on the verbal directions conveyed by the Chief Minister Office.

According to the report, none of the summaries moved for the postings of four secretaries cited any reasons for the frequent removals of secretaries of the food department. “All the summaries for the subject transfer/postings were moved ‘subject to the directions of the competent authority’.”. The report added that the former and current chief secretaries of Punjab also confirmed the same.