Who’s nabbing whom?

September 8, 2019

With a draft bill proposing amendments to the NAB law, there are concerns about discrimination as businessmen and civil servants get relief

Who’s nabbing whom?

The government is currently working to change the NAB law primarily to create ease for the business community and bureaucrats.

The PTI which was once in favour of strict accountability across the board is now all set to bite the dust as the bitter ground realities have forced the top mandarins of the government to soften the NAB law.

"Though the NAB law is draconian in nature, the changes the government is going to introduce should not be confined to bureaucrats and businessmen. These should be applicable to everybody. The government cannot discriminate through law or ordinance," says former attorney general Irfan Qadir. He says that the NAB chairman should not have the power to arrest anyone and then start investigations adding that many people who cooperate during investigations are put behind bars by the NAB before the investigation even starts. He argues that crimes relating to tax evasion (of income tax and sales tax) should be dealt with by the SECP, the FBR and the FIA.

Qadir stresses that the government cannot introduce discriminatory changes in the NAB law. As far as private persons are concerned, unless they get involved in a big financial scam the case is not taken up by NAB. However, private persons doing business with the government are being probed by NAB at present. He believes that private persons, even if they were involved in business with the government should not be subject to NAB law; the officials responsible for the transparency of the bidding process in the concerned ministry should be probed instead of the bidders as investors have the right to bid high and maximise profits. "The NAB didn’t abstain from harassing businessmen. This has sent a wrong signal to foreign investors," he says.

In the financial year 2018-19, the FDI nosedived by fifty percent. Pakistan is already facing a $5.9 billion penalty imposed by the ICSID in Reko Diq case after Pakistan scuttled the agreement, and about $800-900 million in Karkey Rental Power dispute. The NAB probe, the discount rate increasing to 13.25 percent, dollar soaring by over 35 percent to Rs157, the government’s bid to document the economy quickly despite the fact that the FBR does not have the capacity, and slashing down the development budget have created a challenging economic environment. In wake of the documentation drive and higher taxes, the activity in real estate industry has dropped and business activity has slowed down.

In the auto industry, the production of cars has almost touched the lowest ebb as the devaluation of rupee, hike in interest rate and customs duty have impacted economy. The local businessman is suffering because the auto investment has stopped and international brands have postponed the launch new products. This means that many workers have been laid off from their jobs. A decrease of at least 50 percent in car sales has been witnessed. The situation experts warn, may get worse in the time to come. The Pakistan Auto Manufacturing Association (PAMA) has released its sales data revealing nearly 66 per cent decrease in the sale of Honda as 4,981 units were sold in July 2018 and it reduced to 1,694 units in July 2019. The data said Toyota saw a 56 percent decrease in sales during the period as 5,468 units were sold in July 2018 and only 1,694 units were sold in July 2019, while Suzuki Motors saw a 23 percent decrease in sales.

According to economist Dr Hafeez Pasha, "About 800,000 to one million people have lost jobs because of the economic slowdown, whereas four million people have fallen below the poverty line so far and in next two fiscal years, it is feared that about 8,000,000 people will drop below the poverty line." However, in the budget document the GDP growth in the ongoing fiscal has been projected at 2.4 percent.

It has been alleged that the NAB has harassed top business tycoons who had invested in power and LNG sectors. So much so that initiated a probe against the power project installed under the CPEC umbrella and started taking on Chinese and Qatari companies who had invested in Port Qasim coal-based power plants. The Chinese and Qatari companies that invested in power projects under the CPEC umbrella are currently facing the music.

"The business community has raised the issue of undue harassment several times with Prime Minister Imran Khan," says Abdul Razak Dawood, Adviser to PM on Commerce, Textile, Industry & Production and Investment. Dawood says the prime minister listened to them intently and responded with "leave this issue with me." Dawood says that he is worried about the steep drop in FDI (50 percent), and on top of that, the treatment being meted out to investors in Pakistan is sending wrong signals to investors.

The bureaucracy is suffering from low morale due to the crude behavior of the anti-graft body. They have become so scared and demotivated that they are not prepared to take decisions. Federal Minister of Railways Sheikh Rashid, Federal Minister for Energy Umar Ayub, Special Assistant to PM on Petroleum and others in the cabinet have persuaded the prime minister to bring changes in the NAB law to save business community from the tentacles of the investigation agency.

A NAB spokesman, when contacted by TNS said that the NAB chairman was on record for saying that it will not look into the cases pertaining to taxes or tax evasion and they should be handed over to the FBR and the FIA. He said that every investor wants transparency and a transparent environment free of shady deals, corruption and kickbacks will bring more investors. However, when asked how many officials were in NAB custody, he refused to talk numbers.

Tensions between the NAB and the NEPRA have led the latter to stall on issuing a tariff rate for coal-based power plant at Port Qasim. China, alarmed by this delay, has formally raised the issue with the Ministry of Energy and Power Division.

The Inquiry Commission on Debt, headed by Hussain Asghar, has also started probing IPPs over their profit margins. An official with links to the investigation stressed that this should be conducted by experts with knowledge of the power sector and not by those hired by the anti-graft body - as the risk is that the NAB may seek to exert pressure on investors to review the Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) which are supported by sovereign guarantees.

The IPPs installed under the 2002 power policy are also under the radar of the anti-graft body; NAB is also probing oil-fired plants under the 2002 policy, which includes, Nishat, Nishat Chunian, Atlas, Liberty Tech, Attock and Hubco Narowal.

However, the anti-graft is investigating the plea that the IPPs, in order to seek high tariff rate, presented falsified, deceptive and fraudulent figures. It is alleged that Nepra officials hand-in-glove with the IPPs accepted the falsified and fraudulent cost without verification and without checking the efficiency level of the power production units.

Now the question arises as to why the business community feels harassed and coerced - particularly those who have invested in the power and LNG sectors. In power sector, under various government power policies, foreign and local investors signed power purchase agreements (PPA) supported by sovereign guarantees by the governments and foreign and local investors have installed Independent Power Producers. But businessmen are summoned by the anti-graft body and forced them to wait for long hours everyday. They are also named and shamed in the media.

Khalid Mansoor, the Hubco CEO and executive member of IPPAC (Independent Power Producers Advisory Council) confirmed that apart from investigations by the anti-graft body, the Inquiry Commission on Debt has started looking into the IPPs affairs. "We have been asked to submit details of power plants starting from tariff petitions to CoD and then from CoD to the status till now. We are ready to fight our case at every level, but we are being maligned and vilified," he says. "Pakistan is a high-risk country. It ranks at number two after Iraq, and is followed by Egypt, Turkey, Bangladesh, India, China, the UAE and the US."

But rival economies, he says, such as Bangladesh and India are not as risky in terms of investment. This is why the investors prefer these countries instead of Pakistan. More importantly, in the case of India and Bangladesh successive governments honour commercial agreements but in Pakistan the situation is otherwise.

Until now, he said he does not feel that the government wants to review the power purchase agreements (PPAs). Whenever the government moves to review the power purchase agreement unilaterally, the IPPs will certainly move London arbitration under contractual right.

According to sources in the civil services, the treatment being meted out by the NAB to likes up Ahad Cheema and Fawad Hasan Fawad is why the bureaucracy is not taking necessary decisions. Senior civil servants complain that the proposed changes in NAB law will not provide comfort to them.

Who’s nabbing whom?