LAHORE: Staff employed at three model graveyards established by the previous government under a long-term plan have been awaiting renewal of their contracts and facing financial crunch due to non-payment of salaries for four months.
The Shehr-i-Khamoshan graveyards were constructed in Lahore in 2017 and Faisalabad and Sargodha in 2018 by the then chief minister’s Strategic Reforms Unit that was headed by its director general Salman Sufi. Under an Act, the Punjab Shehr-i-Khamoshan Authority (PSKA) was supposed to construct, maintain and monitor all the graveyards which were to be replicated in all 36 districts of the province.
On just one phone call, the graveyard management provides for not only a suitable spot for a grave but also an ambulance, bathing and post-burial services.
The graveyard in Lahore is spread over almost 90 kanal in Mouza Rakh, Cheddu Khana parallel to Ferozepur Road. It is big enough for around 9,000 graves. Since their establishment, the three functional graveyards in Punjab have 630 graves out of which 10 each are in Sargodha and Faisalabad.
However, contracts of the staff at Sargodha and Faisalabad graveyards expired in April, while of those in Lahore in June due to which they have all been deprived of their salaries.
A source in the local government department told Dawn that since the Salman Sufi-led Board of Governors was dissolved around a year ago, a new one had yet to be constituted. A summary was moved in October when Aleem Khan was the senior as well as local government minister and he was really interested in the project; he even recommended names for the board but then he had to step down because of the cases against him and the summary was returned to the local government department. A copy of the summary is available with Dawn.
Now, there’s no BoG, he said, and even the acting DG was transferred a couple of weeks ago. That DG was aware of the issues the staff were facing but wasn’t sure if he could sign on the extensions because he did not hold a full-time charge. The source was of the idea that department officials could also be scared of signing any document with the NAB really active these days.
The source further said that a note, a copy of which is available, was sent to the local government secretary in March informing him about the staff’s issues and his permission was sought to extend the contracts for a year but to no avail.
“To top it all off, the secretary was also transferred last week. Also, the total amount owed to staffers of the three graveyards is a meagre Rs1.3 million with the managers getting Rs30,000 and security guards Rs15,000. So it shouldn’t be much of an issue,” he added.
He further said the department’s additional and special secretaries were both aware of the issues but the department is confused who has the authority to extend the contracts because nobody seems to be taking any ownership and the PSKA is orphaned at this point. The department wants the board to be constituted as soon as possible so that a permanent DG was appointed, who will then approve extension of the contracts, he added.
The source said the LG department hasn’t sent the summary for the constitution of a new board to the chief minister yet, while it has the required funds but they need to be released for the salaries to be paid. The chief minister even wants the graveyard project to be expanded to his hometown of Dera Ghazi Khan and budget was also allocated in the Annual Development Programme but nobody is considering the fact that the staff hasn’t been paid since April, he concluded.
Faisal Hussain Shah, the manager of the Lahore graveyard, lamented that even such a meagre amount of Rs1.3m could not be released for poor workers in three cities. They work seven days a week – even on Eid and on Sundays – and beyond their official hours, he said.
There was obviously no progress on the establishment of similar graveyards in other districts. The chief minister had said a few days ago that these graveyards need to be accelerated but it’s all verbal so far, he maintained.
Shah also felt that since they were hired by the previous government, the staffers were asked to submit several documents to ensure they were hired through a due process, adding that the documents were provided to the administration secretary over a month ago.
Yousaf, who’s been digging graves at the Lahore graveyard for two years, complained that this was the second time their salaries were delayed. “Earlier, we got salaries for three months and then they were delayed for another six. We have not been paid since April and our contracts have expired. We don’t know what to do. We don’t even know whom to complain to because nobody listens to us.”
Newly appointed local government secretary, Dr Ahmed Javed Qazi, told Dawn that he had assumed charge just three days ago, adding that he was informed about the salary and the board issues but wasn’t aware of the details. However, through conversations he felt that the government was quite positive about the project.
Salman Sufi claims that Shehr-i-Khamoshan was not a political project but sanctioned by Shahbaz Sharif for the ease of the public. “We were allotted land in all 36 districts within a week, which is a record. We constructed three Shehr-i-Khamoshan graveyards in record time and expect that this project will be supported by the new government. It is very disappointing that not only the board of the PSKA is defunct but the contracts of employees of existing graveyards are also in limbo. I hope better sense prevails and funds are released immediately,” he stated.
Published in Dawn, July 22nd, 2019