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Free advice for Imran Khan

September 01, 2012

FAMOUSLY, and to much acclaim from his devoted fans, Imran Khan has declared that he will end corruption in either 19 or 90 days, depending on which version you believe.

But in either case, he is sure he will root out this evil in a very short period. In this desire, he is in good company: Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zia and Musharraf all promised to clean up the system. We all know how that went for them and for us.

It’s not that I doubt Imran Khan’s intentions, or that I would like to see him fail should the improbable happen, and he actually comes to power. As a Pakistani, there’s nothing I would rather like to see than a country free of corruption.

But as somebody who has spent most of his working life in the bureaucracy, I can say with some authority that the whole system is now so steeped in venality that I doubt any one ruler has the power to eradicate it in a single lifetime. And this is not the cynic in me speaking, but the practical ex-civil servant.

I know Imran Khan is surrounded by many bright advisers, but this column is intended as a free input into his ongoing policymaking exercise.

Let me start with a personal example. After I took early retirement from the civil service to head a private university whose lovely campus was nearing completion on the outskirts of Karachi, the electrical contractor complained that a provincial inspector was demanding a bribe to issue a certificate. Without this piece of paper, we could not get power from the grid.

I happened to have a friend who was a provincial minister, so I called her to report this complaint. In a couple of days, she rang back to say that she had had the inspector transferred to Thatta, and I passed on the good news to the contractor. A day later, he came to me in a state of great distress, and asked me to have the transfer cancelled.

When I asked him why, he replied that the inspector’s successor and friends in other departments would make it impossible for him to work in the area. “The bureaucracy’s a mafia,” he explained. “You target one member, and the rest of the gang goes for you.” In the event, I refused to call my friend again, and have no idea how things worked out for the contractor.

Here’s another example: when I took over as accountant general Sindh in the mid-1980s, I was aware the office had a reputation for corruption, especially in its pension section. After immediately changing the entire staff there, I put an ad in the newspapers announcing that an officer would record any complaints between 11 and 12 every day.

Often I would join the officer as we waited for complaints to come pouring in. In one month, not a single person came forward. Disappointed and puzzled, I discussed this failure with colleagues. One of them explained, as though to a naïve child, that people knew that if they complained against an official, they would incur the ire of all his colleagues. They would then settle scores after my tenure ended.

These are only some of the realities of corruption. Our businessmen are fond of sitting in their drawing rooms and cursing crooked officials. What they leave unsaid is that mostly, they benefit from this system as they pay bribes to either speed up their cases, or cut corners that allow them to make greater profits. In short, they are partners in crime with the officials they bribe.

And corruption is not restricted to the state sector. Senior executives of large corporations are well aware of how their procurement staff skim off a percentage on the items they buy. Bank managers are not above charging clients a percentage of the loans they disburse. Elected members of well-known clubs are known to make money on contracts and kitchen expenses.

The military is Pakistan’s biggest department in terms of money spent, and given the size of defence contracts, the alleged bribes in this area are huge. But the opaque nature of these transactions, and the clout of those in charge, makes it difficult to quantify the extent of the graft. At the field level, I have heard of at least one commanding officer of a battalion who regularly siphoned off a part of his unit’s food allowance.

Turning to political corruption, the rules of business make it difficult for ministers to accept payoffs without the connivance of the bureaucrats reporting to them. Thus, if a minister demands (or is offered) a bribe for a contract, it is his underlings who will have to make the case and sign the agreement. Thus, politicians have every incentive to ensure they have pliable officers in their departments.

It is this deepening corruption, as well as its social acceptance, that has caused such demoralisation in the higher echelons of the bureaucracy. Incidentally, when Imran Khan says he will clean up the system when he comes to power, does he think his party will win at the centre and the provinces simultaneously? He needs to remember that the sprawling provincial bureaucracies do not fall under Islamabad’s control.

One problem Imran Khan and his team do not seem to have grasped is that low government salaries are one of the prime factors behind the widespread corruption. If I am honest, I will have to concede that I was easily able to resist temptation because I had only one child to educate, and my parents did not need my financial support. Also, my writing brought in a little extra income to pay for books. Most civil servants do not fall into this narrow category.

None of this is to suggest that it is impossible to at least reduce corruption, but it needs a sustained effort, not just empty slogans. Over the years, we have heard plenty of those. Somehow, the bureaucracy needs to be trimmed as it is far larger than our needs. And pay scales need to be brought into step with financial and social reality.

Above all, we must realise that corruption is a fact of life in the developing world. Even industrialised countries have their share of it. So a sense of proportion is needed while tackling this ancient evil.

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.