THE Corona Relief Tiger Force has steadily had the scope of its ‘responsibilities’ widened to well beyond what its name suggests it was set up for, which was in itself a controversial move. On Sunday, Prime Minister Imran Khan tasked the million-member force of volunteers with checking the prices of food items and posting them on its portal, adding that he would discuss the matter further in a forthcoming meeting.

The CRTF was established by Mr Khan in late March, a month after the first coronavirus case was reported in Pakistan, to help the government in providing relief to the people in the midst of the pandemic lockdowns and ensure that the public was adhering to SOPs to prevent the contagion from spreading. A large number of doctors, engineers, lawyers and retired army personnel registered themselves as CRTF volunteers.

According to the government, the force also includes over 300,000 students, 133,000 social workers, 40,000 teachers and 17,000 health workers. With Sindh refusing to allow it to work in the province, the force eventually became operational only in the provinces ruled by PTI and its allies. Soon enough, however, the premier declared he wanted the volunteers to also supervise the workings of the utility stores during the economic hardship brought on by the pandemic, check hoarding, involve themselves in the PTI’s tree plantation drive, and assist in the government’s efforts to combat climate change and locusts.

Escalating food prices is an extremely serious issue and must be tackled in a responsible and credible manner. As the government itself apprehends, the opposition is likely to exploit it for political gain during its campaign to dislodge the current dispensation. To employ the services of a volunteer force operating without any legal cover is an oddly casual and inappropriate approach by the prime minister. Even in the provinces where CRTF is operating, there are district administrations, which include price control magistrates, mandated to carry out the latest task assigned to the volunteer force.

Certainly, there may be officers who are incompetent: the DC Lahore removed 17 price control magistrates in January for not doing their job properly. But having volunteers prowling around haranguing shopkeepers — or, in worse case scenarios, using their ‘Tiger certification’ for illegal financial gains — is surely not the answer.

Opposition politicians from the outset have criticised the CRTF as a political gimmick; increasingly it is being seen as a private political force that answers to the prime minister. It does appear to be an idea rolled out without much spadework, which is why the volunteers are being entrusted with a variety of tasks that have nothing to do with the pandemic, so that they do not appear completely redundant. However, while these paper tigers do not have the legal authority to enforce government directives, one wonders how far this experiment will go.

Published in Dawn, October 14th, 2020

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