Fighting the popular perception

On the Corruption Perception Index, Pakistan slid down three places, from 117 in 2018 to 120 in 2019

The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) is reported to have recovered Rs 487 billion over the last three years. Some quarters have appreciated the performance of the principal watchdog on corruption in the country. The present regime is a staunch proponent for eradicating corruption from all sectors of governance. It came promising to question and bring to justice all those who had reaped windfall gains while in public offices.

The optics against corrupt practices are routinely initiated. For instance, many government departments print the slogan, ‘Say No to Corruption’ on their letter heads, official correspondence and advertisements. There has been continuous talk by various quarters for bringing corruption and the corrupt under check. Not much, however, seems to have been achieved in practical terms. According to the Corruption Perception Index, Pakistan has slid down three places, from 117 in 2018 to 120 in 2019. It still fares below the global average on this index.

In order to move forward, there needs to be a clear comprehension of the various dimensions of corruption. Corruption can be defined as deviation by an individual or group of people from the stipulated roles and responsibilities in pursuit of selfish interests. Political corruption is thus government officials, political functionaries or their agents seeking illegitimate personal gains. Bribery, extortion, cronyism, nepotism, patronage, embezzlement and rent seeking are the various forms of the ailment. Professional domains are infested with corruption too. Disregarding the standards, ethical and technical demands of one’s profession in the delivery of service to the society is professional corruption. Creating unnecessary consultancy and contractual options at taxpayers’ cost is a familiar example of this. Wrongdoings of doctors, engineers, accountants, auditors, lawyers, architects and real estate experts fall in this slot. Lay people too become a vehicle of corruption, knowingly or otherwise. Remaining silent on seeing an illegal or inappropriate act makes one a silent accomplice in the malpractice.

For an objective assessment of corruption, the intent and motivation behind it must be found out. Complying with illegal orders and directions, living beyond one’s means, supporting folks of native clan, cadre or party in violation of merit are instances of corruption. Financial corruption, however, is perhaps the most rampant.

Finding people in responsible positions and roles guilty of such misconduct, callously overlooked by those in leadership positions, is unfortunately common. Many political workers can be found living in mansions in high streets of the capital. Prior to their entry into politics, the same souls had been confined to humble dwellings.

Assets built and rewards received from ‘legal’ means are rarely enough for their children to live in pomp and style. A junior officer in a ‘sensitive’ department can be found driving an imported luxury jeep. He may not be officially entitled to a government vehicle. It will be difficult to tag Pakistan as a lower-middle income country if one visits the federal or provincial secretariats. Obviously, the public bureaucracy is keen on innovations in procurement procedures and rules of entitlement to various comforts.

Not too long ago, the then PM Muhammad Khan Junejo introduced an austerity drive. Luxury vehicles for officials were replaced by 800 –1,000 cc cars. His office and official residence became a model of utmost austerity.

Corruption cannot be controlled while the social environment around us continues to bow before embezzlers of public funds, rent seekers and the like as sacred cows. This category of privileged individuals amend financial management procedures and decision-making in their favour. Fixation of salaries and perks of the occupants of the three sacred houses along the Constitution Avenue in Islamabad is an example.

Gone are the days when ruling elites used to curtail their daily appetite in view of famines and droughts. It is ironic to note that the media, opinion leaders and political parties do not consider financial accountability as their agenda. Honest officers and politicians are hardly celebrated as role models. Rather, they are tagged as losers and a breed no longer in consonance with the present day requirements.

Not long ago, the then prime minister Muhammad Khan Junejo had introduced austerity drive. Luxury official vehicles were replaced by 800–1,000 cc cars. His office and official residence became models of utmost austerity. He also made a point to entertain his personal and family guests from his personal funds. Being neck-deep in an economic morass, the governments, federal and provincial, must take a leaf from his book and ndo away with unnecessary spending and promote simple living.

Throughout our history, the ideas and practices about anti-corruption moves have been quite weird, to say the least. Several approaches have been tried and tested in the past. Successive regimes have levelled charges and initiated cases through institutional arrangements best suited to their political camps. Beyond a witch-hunt, the exercise has seldom achieved much.

Then the practice of plea bargain was institutionalised. A few high profile looters and plunderers were hounded up. When they agreed to return a fraction of the gains, they were set free. This gave the message that one should always go for the big kill to be able to share some of the crumbs with the regulators. In a judgment by the superior judiciary on a case in Karachi, the mysterious enterprise that illegally occupied, sub-divided and sold public lands as prime parcels for real estate was provided an opportunity to pay a certain ‘penalty’ to have the ‘transaction’ legalised. Many complain that the law and its interpretation have been unable to provide the same relief to occupants of public lands for mere shelter – they were brutally evicted under orders from the same judiciary.

Corruption can be fought by taking certain basic steps. The foremost is the identification of corrupt practices. Our media corps is doing a meticulous job in this respect. The common man must help the journalists in identifying malpractices. Whistle-blowing on corruption with valid evidence must be encouraged. Caution, however, needs to be taken against confusing facts and hearsay. Media trials must be not allowed. If evidence of malpractice is found, it should be routed through the legal process.

It may be pointed out that the proactive citizen’s action has always brought useful results. To enhance his role, effective and fool proof security should be extended to whistle-blowers.

The author is Chairperson of Department of Architecture and Planning at NED University, Karachi. He can be reached at [email protected]

Fighting the popular perception