‘Secret service’

30 Aug 2018


BRIBERY is the building block of corruption, and sadly, in purana Pakistan it prevails at all levels, from a peon to the highest office in a government department. The bigger the office, the higher the bribe. Any posting that involves disbursement of money to a service provider is considered a blessing by a majority of civil servants.

‘Everyday bribes’, such as those you pay a clerk to get your file signed more quickly, or to a peon to move the file a little higher up the stack of files to be seen by his sahib, are more visible but relatively less harmful. I find it ironic when media vigilantes chase these individuals with mics and cameras and splash their faces across television screens, while the big (dirty) fish, with their pre-defined fixed percentages conveniently transferred to their bank accounts without leaving a trace of wrongdoing, never catch their eye.

The senior bureaucracy goes about receiving bribes so brazenly that it almost beggars belief. Those compelled to pay bribes to get their bills approved or land a contract never raise their voice because they are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea and cannot afford a delay in payments or losing an opportunity by going to court — that too with hardly any admissible evidence.

The bribe culture must be tackled proactively.

How to put an end to this is the million-dollar question.

There would not be any whistleblowers: they are an extinct species, buried under many years of ruthless corruption that this country has seen. Although PTI made a decent effort to curb corruption by incentivising whistleblowers through the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Whistleblower Protection and Vigilance Commission Act, 2016, such a system only works if people are scrupulous in general and there are only a few dirty fish; but here, there is hardly anybody whose hands are clean. You will need orchestra players and not just whistleblowers to identify them. Also, whistleblowers cannot get protection when a complete mafia is in action, which is the case in many government departments.

Nonetheless, the KP whistleblower law and its counterpart at the federal level, the Public Interest Disclosures Act, 2017, have been steps in the right direction, but the bribe culture is so prevalent in this country that it would need something much more proactive, and that would be a ‘secret service’.

We need a secret service to be introduced in each department. An intelligence-gathering organisation comprising specialised individuals with the job description to understand the organisation’s structure and gather information as well as evidence of financial embezzlement and bribe-taking. They would act as ‘professional whistleblowers’.

As a start, these individuals should be deputed in only the departments that spend a sizeable portion of Public Sector Development Programme funds. What is imperative is that the secret service members deputed within an organisation must have in depth knowledge of the working procedures so that they know the critical areas to look for pilferage. This can be done by including an honest individual from within the departments among the members of the team.

Apparently, a wing under the military intelligence performs similar internal functions for military personnel, identifying unscrupulous elements at initial stages and acting as a deterrent. I am not suggesting that such a system would yield 100 per cent results but at least individuals would stay clear from obvious financial embezzlement on a large scale. However, it may not act as a deterrent when individuals reach a level where they acquire more influence. This is what we can call a rank getting bigger than the rules. The proposed civil service secret service needs to do better than that.

Financial embez­­zlement, especially the bribe culture, is something that gradually picks up steam. An individual starts by taking small risks, and, emboldened by the success of the crime, moves on to taking bigger risks and causing greater losses to the national exchequer. Bribery gives rise to cyclical corruption as the amount spent on bribes is compensated by compromising on the project, product, service or policy — be it an IT service such as the RTS, infrastructure projects such as roads or airports, or decisions that impact the general public, for example the regulation of the oil or auto industry.

Lastly, it is pertinent to point out that annual audits conducted by the auditor general of Pakistan for each department do not fulfil the purpose of checking corruption because of a lack of timeliness and prevalence of bribe culture among auditors as well. Another reason for their ineffectiveness is that documents can appear completely in order even in the event of major financial embezzlement. I am privy to many such projects where the state exchequer has been robbed of billions without leaving a trace. That story, some other time.

The writer is a former civil servant.
Twitter: @SyedSaadat52

Published in Dawn, August 30th, 2018