ISLAMABAD: The government is trying to rein in the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) after senior bureaucrats complained to the prime minister of harassment and threatening behaviour by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), which they said was making government officials reluctant to sign official files.
In order to provide the bureaucracy with a better working environment and to ensure ‘ease of doing business’ for the business community, the government introduced a bill to curtail NAB’s powers in Senate last week.
A senior government official told Dawn that Prime Minister Imran Khan took initiative against the bureau after a senior bureaucrat refused to sign a file for the Main Line-I (ML-I) railway project at a cabinet meeting.
ML-I, under which a new railway line from Karachi to Peshawar would be laid, was to be launched under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) with Chinese funding a couple of months ago.
A bill has been introduced in Senate to curtail NAB’s powers
“The prime minister was quite disturbed by the refusal and asked [for] a special session on the issue at the next cabinet meeting, [which was] held recently,” the official said.
At the next meeting, many senior officials said they were not willing to initiate ML-I or other projects because they fear NAB.
The bureaucrat who had first refused to sign the ML-I file told Mr Khan that he had served throughout his career with dedication and honesty, but NAB was after him in a motorway case.
He said one of NAB’s investigators had questioned him on why he visited a city when the contractor for the project was already present.
The railways ministry official was quoted as saying: “I did my work with honesty and there is no corruption on my part in the motorway case.”
Bureaucrats in other ministries and organisations have lodged similar complaints with their heads and their refusal to sign official paperwork has brought the government machinery to a standstill.
Officials in housing, communication, water, energy and ports and shipping have expressed wariness when it comes to signing official files.
“Some senior officials came to my room recently and said they would not move files [because] otherwise they would face NAB cases,” the head of a department under the Ministry of Housing told Dawn.
He said many housing projects have been delayed by the fears expressed by senior officials, as well as their refusal to move files.
ML-I has been considered a lifeline for Pakistan’s economy and railways. Although a high speed rail link between China and Pakistan is already on the agenda, laying down the 1,872 kilometre ML-I is a challenge that was supposed to be addressed immediately.
According to the original plan, the construction and upgrading of rail infrastructure between Peshawar and Karachi will take place in two phases and be completed by 2022. The decision to split the project into two was made by the last government because of its high cost and the extensive work, as the project requires that the main railway line be expanded and refurbished.
The project’s initial cost of $8.2 billion was based on a joint feasibility study. The project was amended by the present government and the Chinese government to make it equally profitable for both parties.
A senior railways official told Dawn that the Chinese government has issued funding for ML-I and is eager to begin.
“However, the bureaucracy’s reluctance is said to be the main hurdle in the way of launching the project,” he said.
When asked about the bill the government has introduced in Senate to curtail NAB, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information Firdous Ashiq Awan said consultations on the bill are underway with all stakeholders.
She said the main objective of the bill is to ensure ‘ease of doing business’ for investors and the business community.
“The prime minister wants wealth creation in the country, and therefore such steps are being taken,” she said.
Ms Awan said the government wants a uniform policy and for all anti-corruption institutions to have a defined role.
“We must know the powers of NAB, the Federal Investigation Agency, Federal Board of Revenue and anti-corruption department so that suspects cannot be made a rolling stone,” she said.
Under the aforementioned bill, NAB will not prosecute cases of less than Rs500 million, and will only prosecute public office holders with assets that are an outcome of corruption and corrupt practices.
NAB court will have the ability to grant bail by demanding the execution of bond with or without sureties. The bill says suspects will not be sentenced to prison if they come voluntarily and pay proceeds of corruption at the time of inquiry, but will be liable for other penalties.
Powers of arrest would be taken from the NAB chairman and officials, and they will not be able to authorise detention at all. NAB would also have a six-month period to conclude any inquiry or investigation. The bill adds that NAB may secure someone’s attendance by asking for the execution of a bond and that there is no need for custodial investigations.
NAB officials would also be banned from making public statements against individuals until a reference is filed against them.
In a meeting with bureaucrats, NAB Chairman retired Justice Javed Iqbal claimed the bureau would not call any bureaucrat who works by the book, and a transparent system must be devised so NAB cannot interfere.
The meeting was apparently called to rebuff the perception that the bureaucracy had stopped working because of harassment by NAB.
Mr Iqbal added that it was “a propaganda” that the bureaucracy had stopped working out of fear of NAB, as there were very few cases against the bureaucracy compared to others.
Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2019