IN an unexpected development, Prime Minister Imran Khan sacked SAPM Petroleum Nadeem Babar as he ordered an investigation into last summer’s oil shortage in the country. The petroleum secretary, too, has been suspended and the FIA ordered to complete a forensic inquiry into the role of all players, including oil marketing companies, in 90 days. The shortages had forced consumers to queue up for hours at a stretch at petrol pumps for about a month as OMCs reduced imports to avoid inventory losses and cashed in on the misery of the public allegedly with the Petroleum Division’s connivance. The OMCs also profited by not passing on the benefits of the massive reduction in global oil markets to the consumers.

The sacking of one of the most important members of the cabinet months after an earlier probe into the fiasco was completed and its findings leaked to the media has surprised many. For months, the prime minister and his team kept defending Mr Babar even when the media tried to highlight his alleged role in the petroleum crisis as well as in the delayed procurement of LNG. These crises are believed to have caused the country losses of billions of rupees, leaving citizens and industry to cope with crippling gas shortages in winter. The media was blamed for sensationalising the issue, despite the LHC observation in July that the SAPM was prima facie responsible for the petrol shortages as he was running the affairs of the Petroleum Division.

It is not for the first time that the government has dragged its feet on decision-making in cases where its own people may be involved. For example, nothing much has been done to bring those responsible for the severe sugar and wheat crisis in the country to justice in spite of incriminating evidence against the market players. Given the government’s stance that there is no evidence to suggest their involvement in the crisis, Mr Babar’s removal and the secretary’s suspension, even before the forensic probe is undertaken, appears unusual. Although the government says his sacking is not an admission of guilt, it can be perceived as otherwise. The initial probe also laid bare the weaknesses of the oil supply chain and exposed the role of the ministry, Ogra, the OMCs and petrol pump owners. The OMCs deliberately stopped supplies from their stocks and Ogra went slow on penalising the delinquent companies, some of which are also allegedly involved in the smuggling of inferior Iranian petroleum products. The SAPM’s sacking has engendered hopes that the government is finally ready to take punitive action against what it often describes as mafias that have plundered the people and the exchequer to enrich themselves. But these events also underline the need for urgent market reforms in different sectors of the economy to prevent a repetition of similar crises.

Published in Dawn, March 28th, 2021

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