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Not the high road

November 14, 2017


CONSIDER the following conversation regarding the purchase of an apple between a prospective buyer and a seller. The buyer asks how much the apple costs. Rs10, replies the seller. How much would it cost if it were the only apple in the city? Rs1,000, the seller responds. How much would it cost if it were the last apple on earth? A million rupees, says the seller. The buyer pays the seller his million and takes the apple.

Any guesses who the buyer is? A civil servant. Any guesses who the seller of the apple is? A relative and a business partner of the buyer. Any guesses what country they live in? Yes, that’s right, Pakistan. There are no audit objections as the astute civil servant writes an elaborate note stating that ‘There was a fear that this might be the last apple in the world which would mean a security threat that can result in wars over this apple; hence, the funds are approved’. The auditors would, perhaps, take a small share from the million and everyone would live happily ever after.

This should not be too surprising for someone living in a country where Mr Sharjeel Memon is accused of very similar deals and where the finance minister continues to hold office despite being under trial for massive alleged corruption. Since they are still only accused, let us not comment on their case; rather let me share another story of what can be seen as subtle pilferage.

Crude attempts at acquiring vehicles must be stopped.

Pakistan is spending big on road infrastructure. There is nothing wrong with it; better infrastructure always helps in generating economic activity and aiding the poor in one form or the other. Another different but related fact is that there is a blanket ban on the purchase of new vehicles by government departments as the government has taken countless austerity measures that achieve anything but the objective. In fact, the government ends up spending more on age-old vehicles in poor condition. Actually, these vehicles are allegedly also cash cows for many medium- to low-level employees as their maintenance can mean large sums of money. New cars would mean no maintenance costs, which would mean no opportunity to over-invoice and reap the benefits of extra income.

Meanwhile, the National Highway Authority (NHA) came up with a plan that is unbecoming of a state institution. An advertisement for maintenance works in Punjab appeared on its website. Everything seemed to be fine, except for a clause that some could see as an attempt to pocket public money. I wonder if anyone in the hierarchy has pointed it out. The bid document states that the respective bidders must also include a luxury vehicle of the department’s choice while quoting their bid price for the advertised projects. Here is an excerpt stating the exact demand: “Note i):- Provision of new vehicle […] latest model up-specification fully loaded with AC, insurance, registration and tracker system to the satisfaction of the employer’s representative. (No separate payment shall be made rather the price is deemed to be included in other BOQ [Bill of Quantities] items).”

The said advertisement is still available on NHA’s website. Rather than facilitating the engineering firms by providing something like a mobilisation advance (an advance payment made to engineering firms in order to mobilise better at the site of the project) which is a norm the world over, NHA seems to be doing the opposite, ie asking the engineering firms to earmark the amount for the vehicles not to improve project execution but to buy luxury vehicles. When engineering firms bid for the said projects, they would not only add the price of the vehicle but much more than that, as they would be blocking their capital. In fact, a vehicle having a price tag of Rs4 million would cost the government much more as a cash-strapped engineering firm would perhaps use substandard materials and give bribes to get those materials approved and this food chain of corruption would continue. No wonder our engineering projects are nothing to write home about.

The argument that the national exchequer is not being burdened falls flat when one looks at the whole picture. The government should lift the ban on the purchase of vehicles by government departments so that such undignified attempts at acquiring vehicles can be arrested and we can buy vehicles for public departments at their actual rates rather than inflated ones.

Lastly, I request the chairman NHA to please not take notice of this as he must know that this is the norm. Also, the very upright chief justice of the Lahore High Court is requested to abstain from taking suo motu notice because even if this little anomaly is struck down, love will find a way, yes love for luxury on public expense.

The writer is a former civil servant

Published in Dawn, November 14th, 2017