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LAHORE: At a time when the Punjab government’s public-sector companies have come under the spotlight, official circles claim the departments’ failure to deliver “quick” results had compelled the high command to go into the companies’ mode albeit through an “undeclared policy”.

Punjab’s 56 companies have come under the scanner of the Supreme Court as Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice Saqib Nisar recently took suo motu notice of lucrative salaries (running into millions) offered to the civil servants.

These companies’ affairs are also being probed by the National Accountability Bureau.

Former chief minister Shahbaz Sharif, who had the reputation of being impatient to deliver quick results to clear the backlog, had found out panacea in public-sector companies that could expeditiously work while enjoying operational independence.

Accordingly, the companies were created and chief executive officers (CEOs) searched and offered lucrative salaries with one demand – quick results.

The companies, sources said, proved their mettle and the concept won acclaim especially with the creation of the Lahore Waste Management Company that efficiently handled sanitary conditions on the city roads unlike the Metropolitan Corporation.

They also cited the example of power-sector companies, with a claim that such projects could not be taken up by the departments.

“It was smooth sailing till 2016 and the concept of quick service delivery moved on without any further intervention,” a source said, adding that “the problem started when courts found that the companies had been illegally formed”.

The famous Mustafa Impex case of 2016 had changed the scene as the Supreme Court determined that the secretary to the government was no more the sole authority (government) after the 18th amendment but the chief minister and cabinet are considered government in a province and the prime minister and his cabinet in the federal government.

The apex court had taken up the case as a notification by the Secretary Revenue Division/Additional Secretary Revenue Division was challenged.

However, the Punjab government did not pay heed and none other than Shahbaz Sharif continued to create more companies with vigour that earned him the sobriquet of “Shahbaz Speed”.

While the public-sector companies were governed through corporate governance rules and answerable to their boards of management, sources said a conflict remained in discussion that why the companies could not be governed by the government when they were using public money.

Realising that the creation of companies was not legal in the sense that they were created by chief minister’s order and not endorsed by the Punjab cabinet, the government brought up the case in its last (May 30) cabinet meeting and secured ex-post facto approval for the 56 public-sector companies. The cabinet had also granted approval for the hiring of legal counsel for these entities.

The Punjab government had also took up the case of winding up of two companies – the Punjab Culture and Outreach Company and the Inland Water Transport Development Company. The cabinet, however, did not endorse the idea of winding up companies in its last meeting considering political repercussions.

As for “lucrative salaries” to the civil officers selected as CEOs, a senior officer said the salary packages had been designed to appreciate the candidates for their project management skills. He quoted the example of Rashid Mahmood Langrial who had executed the 1,230MW Haveli Bahadur Shah Power Plant in Jhang.

The officer also credited Ahad Cheema (who is on judicial remand in Rs14 billion Ashiyana Housing Scheme scam) with displaying his project management skills in the execution of Bhikki Power Plant and the Orange Line Metro Train.

Sources said the Punjab government would be in a fix as how to justify the lucrative salary being offered to retired Capt Muhammad Usman in the Saaf Pani Company.

“There is nothing tangible to justify Capt Usman’s performance or skill,” they said.

In all, sources said, there were 71 companies and 17 of them had become inactive and six were at winding-up stage.

Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2018