EVERYBODY expected the PTI government to come clean on the issue of funds that floated around the Covid crisis because it was a grave situation that was managed very well; much better than most around the globe. Sadly, however, it was not to be. The Auditor-General’s (AG) report on Covid spending underlined irregularities, causing financial losses and performance setbacks in the initial three-month period of FY20, from March to June.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament, keeping the sensitivity of the issue in sight, must diligently follow through on the audit report. It has to be precise and quick rather than verbose and long-winding. The matter cannot be allowed to drag endlessly. Making it sharp will ensure that mistakes were not repeated, restore public confidence and assuage donor concerns.

“This was a once-in-a-century health crisis that rattled the world. In an emergency situation of such a magnitude, disruption in routine order of business could have been explained. But the AG office was denied access to documents by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and other government agencies involved in relief and revival work, and that has raised suspicions,” said a rare PTI sympathiser in the bureaucracy.

“The AG office had to publish the report with observations of non-cooperation. It cited instances of overstepping the mandate by the focal body and aligned executing agencies involved in the Covid-related drive,” he added.

Despite the fact that the federal cabinet has rejected the audit observations related to Covid management, there are questions in many a mind

“The government made another cardinal mistake by trying to hide a published official document from the public’s eye. How can you do that? It is a sad commentary on the conduct of a democratic government that it presented the undated AG’s report in National Assembly under International Monetary Fund’s pressure,” commented a source in Islamabad privy to affairs of the Public Account Committee (PAC).

The report was tagged on AG’s official website only last week. As soon as its contents were reported in the media, the federal cabinet hurriedly rejected it.

“The rejection by the cabinet means nothing as it is up to the PAC, a bipartisan body chaired by Pakistan Muslim League (N)’s member national assembly (MNA) Rana Tanvir Hussain (headed ideally by the leader of the opposition), to discuss, investigate, form an opinion and make recommendations. The work of our office ends once the report is published,” a source in the AG office in Islamabad said while explaining the procedure.

The AG report on Covid observed lack of government preparedness, instances of mis-procurements, delays in delivery of purchases, weak financial controls, absence of proper record-keeping, reluctance in sharing relevant documents, unauthorised tax and duty breaks, weak warehousing management, data glitches resulting in cash transfers to undeserving persons, unnecessary advance payments to suppliers, double cash grant payments, unjustified pre-qualification of flour mills by the Utility Stores Corporation and procedural lapses.

The government’s over-reaction to the AG’s report was interpreted as an attempt to dissuade the auditors from undertaking a similar exercise related to the Covid management in FY21. Some businessmen reached out for comments believed that the PTI “must have bungled big time” to be acting the way it is. “It’s amply clear that the official team does not want audit hounds sniffing around the Covid business,” a top businessman said.

Read more: Covid funds controversy

When reached over the phone, Dr Sania Nishtar, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Poverty Alleviation, denied violations of rules or financial lapses in the disbursements made under the Ehsaas Emergency Cash (EEC) programme to the deserving families in the wake of Covid-induced lockdowns. She sounded disturbed and regretted that the negative remarks in media had demoralised the “dedicated staff who worked beyond the call of duty during the toughest phase of the pandemic” in providing relief to the needy.

She took time walking this scribe through each of the 10 objections on the Ehsaas programme and countered each of them. She also shared a five-page explanatory note wherein all objections have been contested.

To a question why were these paragraphs not settled with the audit team before the publication of the report if evidence-based clarification was available, she said the departmental audit committees (DACs) had ended abruptly without the final closure meeting.

From initiation to completion, a special audit is a long-drawn process carried out in accordance with the laid out procedures. It was not clear why the AG team hurried a report on an issue that is of global interest. As things stand, the ball is now in PAC’s court.

The credit for the success of the Covid strategy is shared by all political parties. The fact that the PPP set the path is beyond doubt. In the end, it was better coordination and cooperation between the federal and sub-federal tiers with the induction of information communication technology that saved lives and livelihoods and protected the country from a possible catastrophe. The PAC must play the role expected of it in a democracy at a time when the whole world is watching.

Dr Nishtar insisted that no irregularity had been committed in the Ehsaas disbursements. Besides, there were no allegations by the audit team of mis-procurement, no violations of procurement codes, no violation of rules, no financial mismanagement, no loss to the exchequer, no wasteful expenditure, no overpayments, no unauthorised retention, and no instances of “non-production of records”. In short, no corruption in the Ehsaas programme.

“The initiative was launched within days of the Covid lockdown. It has been highly rated globally as one of the global best. Despite its massive scope both in terms of coverage and fiscal quantum in the context of strict lockdowns, there were only 10 audit observations related to Ehsaas (largely recommendations of an advisory nature); these were raised due to dependency on other allied institutions.”

The focal organisation, NDMA, which established the well-known National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) and handled the Covid-related budget and its disbursement, was approached for comments. Its response did not reach Dawn till the filing of this report despite repeated reminders.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, December 6th, 2021

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