Sweet & sour governance

Apr 11 2020

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The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

SOMETIMES what official reports do not say is more important that what they do say.

The virus-plagued landscape was rocked last week by two FIA-led reports that contained fairly good content and fairly bad grammar. They delved into the murky world of the sugar and wheat sectors. Commissioned by Prime Minister Imran Khan in the wake of shortages and price hikes earlier this year, the reports are littered with data and ‘findings’ that will shock absolutely no one in particular. And yet the magnitude of faux-outrage has registered fairly high on the political Richter scale.

So what gives?

The crux of the yawn-inducing findings: federal government approved the export of sugar, the Punjab government approved a subsidy and sugar mill owners made a killing. We are also told such salacious facts like which sugar baron commands what percentage of the market share. The rest is left to our imagination.

When imagination takes over, nothing else stands a chance. Nothing. So one person’s wild imagination runs on to TV screens and says the prime minister has just won a crusade against the biggest mafia of all; another man’s wilder imagination leaps on to the front pages of newspapers and proclaims with relish that the leader has accomplished what he had set out to do; while yet another unbridled, unharnessed and maniacally uncontrollable imagination sprints to the social media minefield to herald the end of all conflicts of interest in the government. Forever. And Ever.

When imagination takes over, nothing stands a chance.

Right then.

Back in the real world, things are a bit different. Here such weighty reports are expected to be less an indictment of an individual and more that of the system that produces situations that in turn produce such reports. If someone, somewhere did not like Jahangir Tareen because he was making oodles of money while wielding outsized influence over the running of the ruling party and the government this ruling party rules, well then that person is a tad bit late to the game. Tareen did not start making money a few months ago. Tareen also did not start wielding outsized influence on the party and government a few months ago. If he ends up becoming the only casualty of the report, something is clearly amiss.

Actually, it is more than just something. When we zoom out of the individual-specific focus and pan across the wider arc of systemic rot, a more expansive set of variables come into focus.

Act 1, Scene 1: In October 2018, the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) meets to discuss an agenda that includes the question of allowing the export of sugar. The meeting is chaired by the then finance minister, Asad Umar, and in attendance is a galaxy of ministerial grandees like Razzaq Dawood, Khusro Bakhtiyar, Ghulam Sarwar Khan, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, as well as the governors of the State Bank of Pakistan. This august forum is provided a summary by the food ministry that contains numbers and dates; it says there is excess stock of sugar available with the mills. Some among the ministerial grandees argue that this excess sugar should be allowed for export so that ‘local farmers can benefit’. The finance minister agrees and the approval is granted.

Act 1, Scene 2: In December 2018, the matter of export is brought in front of the Punjab government. The word ‘subsidy’ surreptitiously creeps into the discussion. The finance ministry of Punjab disagrees with the grant of subsidy, and says so in writing. The government of Punjab goes ahead anyway and grants a subsidy of Rs3 billion to the sugar industry for export. Many sugar barons make a killing.

Act 2, Scene 1: In December 2018, the retail price of sugar stands at Rs55.99 per kilo. By February 2020, the sweet stuff is selling at Rs79.86 per kg.

Act 2, Scene 2: Well, here is where this scene is still being scripted. The script may have a predictable ending, but what it should, ideally, weave together is a narrative that goes something like this:

The ECC made a decision that was its to make. Fair enough. But what did it base its decision on? A summary by the food ministry. What was that summary based on? A set of data about existing stocks of sugar. Where did this data come from? A food inspector must have visited all sugar mills and noted down exact figures? How is his information verified? Has the source code for possible systemic manipulations ever been dissected down to the bare minimum in an effort to repair and reform it?

In this particular case, was there in fact the kind of surplus stock that was reported to the ECC? Perhaps there was. But if in case — just in case — there was not, can you imagine the magnitude of the fallout of a decision made in good spirit by the ECC?

Points to ponder.

And points to wonder too. The government of Punjab made a call to grant the subsidy for sugar import. Fair enough. If it was a good decision, should we not know whom to reward? If it was a bad decision, should we not know whom to punish? Perhaps everyone did the right thing by making the right call based on the right information, laced with the right intentions, for all the right reasons.

Perhaps when in doubt, best to turn to Shakespeare:

Act 3, Scene 3 (The play Julius Caesar)

Cinna the Poet: Directly, I am going to Caesar’s funeral.

First Citizen: As a friend or an enemy?

Cinna the Poet: As a friend.

Third Citizen: Your name, sir, truly.

Cinna the Poet: Truly, my name is Cinna.

First Citizen: Tear him to pieces; he’s a conspirator.

Cinna the Poet: I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet.

Fourth Citizen: Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

Twitter: @fahdhusain

Published in Dawn, April 11th, 2020