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Friday January 28, 2022

Covid audit

December 02, 2021

Last week, Pakistan finally released the AGP’s audit report of expenditures incurred on Covid-19 by the federal government. The report had already been delayed by many months in violation of the IMF agreement. Now that the report is out, it has pointed out massive irregularities to the tune of billions of rupees. Questions were raised by the auditors on 52 percent of the spending of the Utility Stores Corporation (USC), 19 percent of Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) spending, around 21 percent of the spending of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), while also raising concern over the spending of the defence ministry as well as some other government departments. The cabinet, though, has rejected the findings of the audit report, with Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry saying that three relevant organisations have been asked to give their presentations in this regard, the finance ministry rejecting the report altogether, and Dr Sania Nishtar clarifying the position of BISP and Ehsaas Programme.

It is unfortunate that instead of investigating why there have been such massive irregularities, the PTI government has instead chosen to reject the claims. The PTI’s ethos has been the anti-corruption narrative, which has been led in an almost crusade-like manner by PM Imran Khan. So why is it that his own cabinet has rejected such serious allegations of fraud from funds that were specifically given for a global health pandemic? And this is not the first time that we are hearing of irregularities in Covid-related spending. In August and September, there were reports in this paper about irregularities in Covid relief funds in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Both provinces are ruled by the sitting government.

The government needs to find out who is responsible for such massive misappropriation of funds, and whether it is due to corruption or incompetence, or both. There is no justification to hide behind this rejected mantra and then wait for the news cycle to pick on something else. A government that did not want the poor to suffer due to corona lockdowns, a government that has successfully handled the pandemic and a government that calls itself different and better than all the rest should have no issues with an inquiry into the truth. Merely saying that relevant organisations are looking into this but that the finance ministry has rejected the audit report in itself raises red flags. If there are any discrepancies in the audit report, they must be probed and pointed out but outright rejection is no answer. When such large-scale misappropriation is alleged, it calls for a similarly large-scale investigation. All government organisations are accountable to the auditors and to the people of Pakistan. The government must now strengthen its oversight of fund utilisation and conduct an unbiased investigation.

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