LAHORE  -    It was a lavish wedding party at a farmhouse in Lahore’s suburb on weekend. Hundreds of guests had seated but the host family was still waiting for the latecomers. Many of the guests arrived on latest model cars including sport utility vehicles or SUVs.

Each “VIP” was seen escorted by several private bodyguards as he arrived at the venue. Interestingly, most of these VIPs were not ministers or industrialists but they were low-ranking government officers posted on lucrative posts in various departments. 

In everyday life, a large number of government officials including police officers are seen enjoying wealthy lifestyle with all luxuries. Many holders of public offices have become millionaires, if not billionaires, in a few decades.

Nobody can question these ‘wealthy individuals’ about the “source of income” or the assets they posses. Hence, these powerful individuals thrived over the years despite crackdown by various government agencies.

The provincial anti-graft bodies like anti-corruption establishment or ACE are in place everywhere to catch the corrupt. But, in fact, their activities are limited to paperwork. The ACE registers hundreds of graft cases against individual government officials but powerful corrupts are rarely prosecuted or punished.

However, the crackdown launched by the National Accountability Bureau across the country in recent years has virtually shaken the confidence of corrupt elements. As part of the crackdown, the NAB arrested dozens of senior government officers and powerful politicians for having “assets beyond known sources of income” and several accused are put on trial.

The massive crackdown and arrests of powerful individuals has not only jolted the country’s powerful bureaucracy but it has also stunned the Mafias or pressure groups. According to sources, NAB is currently investigating more than 100 cases of mega corruption. Over a dozen senior officials including police officers are also facing trails.

The NAB’s crackdown against land Mafias involved in housing projects across the country is considered the biggest achievement of the authority. The NAB, in addition to government officers, arrested hundreds of individuals who robbed public at large in the name of housing schemes. The authority handed over cheques worth billions of rupees to the affectees of mega land scam. However, many victims of land frauds are still waiting for the compensation.

Several anti-corruption agents who spoke to The Nation on condition of anonymity say that investigation into white-collar crime is a complicated subject and it needs a lot of time, technique, and technology. They were of the opinion that corrupt elements flourished over the years despite non-stop crackdowns by government departments.

“I personally know a low-ranking official whose children are studying abroad. I am unable to understand how he has been paying the fees/bills in dollars since he gets salary in five digits in local currency,” an official of the anti-corruption department said. “But, we can’t take any action because we cannot question someone’s sources of income or the assets he posses,” he said. “This is out of our domain,” he said.

NAB, the high-powered and largest anti-corruption body, was formed in 1999. An official who works with this body was of the view that they had no resources, skills, and mandate to investigate each individual for having “assets beyond means.”

“The NAB investigates only complaints of corruption filed properly with the authority. We don’t have resources and capacity to check everyone’s assets,” the official said. “We can start an inquiry but only after we get a solid clue against someone.” He said more than 400 complaints of corruption are filed with Lahore NAB against individuals and government departments. “At least 200 complaints are converted into inquiry stage and more than 75 cases of corruption are under investigation,” he explained.

An official of the Federal Investigation Agency said that the investigators probing into white-collar crime lack resources and skills. He suggested that foreign qualified and foreign trained Pakistanis should be employed to boost capacity of different government agencies probing mega corruption cases.

Last month, NAB Chairman Justice (retired) Javed Iqbal claimed that they recovered Rs 300 billion from the corrupt elements during years-long crackdown. A few weeks ago, an Executive Board Meeting of the National Accountability Bureau approved another 12 inquiries, besides filing corruption references against several accused persons.

The meeting chaired by NAB Chairman Justice (retired) Javed Iqbal approved conducting inquiries against former president National Bank of Pakistan Saeed Ahmed and officers, National Electric Power Regulatory Authority officials, Ministry of Water and Power officials, and Private Power and Infrastructure Board (PPIB) officers.

Sponsors of Port Qasim Coal Power projects and others, Messers Hasnain Cotex and others, former Lahore Police DIG Haider Ashraf, former Lahore Police CCPO Amin Wains, SSP Umer Virk and others, Karachi, Baldia Town MPA and former Town Nazim Kamran Akhtar, Sindh Health Department officials, University of Swabi officials, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s public sector companies officials, Civil Aviation Authority, Bacha Khan International Airport, Peshawar, PATA officers, former NADRA director Saeed Ahmed Jagrani, and others were also included in the investigations over complaints of corruption.

The NAB board also approved filing corruption reference against former Sindh minister for industries and commerce Muhammad Abdul Rauf Siddiqui and others over 372 illegal appointments and misappropriation of government funds, causing Rs 420million loss to the national exchequer.

In the same board meeting, the authority also accorded approval to close inquiries against officials of Allama Iqbal Open University and others, Fund for Rehabilitation of Special Persons Limited, Lahore and others, former AIG Abdul Qadeer Bhutta and others, IGP Islamabad Aamir Zulfikar Khan and others, former Pakistan Steel Mills Principal Executive Officer Wasif Mehmood and others, officers of Dadu division, Shaheed Benazirabad district, Principal of Shaikh Zayed College Rahim Yar Khan Dr Mubarak Ali and others due to absence of evidence.

Thousands of government officials are arrested and put on trial on corruption charges across the country each year. Even they are terminated from service but they manage to come back by using political connections.

Reportedly, out of the total 180,000 strength of the Punjab police more than 51,200 policemen were awarded punishments for corruption or violating discipline in 2015. The department, in 2014, had awarded major or minor punishments to at least 59,164 policemen for corruption or ill-discipline.

Almost, one-third of the Punjab Police were punished over corruption or ill-discipline in 2015. According to a report, many among those awarded major or minor punishments were constables, head constables, SHOs, and assistant sub inspectors.

The punishments included dismissal from service, compulsory retirement, reduction in rank and pay scale, extra-drill quarter guard, censure, and fine. Cops were given punishments on different grounds ranging from corruption to misuse of power. The scale of punishments awarded to a large number of officers reflects the department has been struggling to make police a corruption-free and well-disciplined force.

The 2017 Corruption Perception Index of the Transparency International ranked Pakistan 117th place out of 180 countries. Although Pakistan’s place in the world corruption perception index improved drastically over the years yet there is a dire need to reform accountability and anti-corruption policies at higher levels.

According to transparency international, Pakistan saw a reasonable improvement in its statistics in 2013 when its ranking improved by 12 indices compared to its previous rankings– 139 out of 174 in 2012, 134 out of 182 in 2011, 143 out of 178 in 2010, and 139 out of 180 in 2009.

The national accountability bureau recovered Rs 300 billion from the accused persons in several years. Most of the money was recovered from the land Mafias who robbed people in the name of housing schemes. The powerful individuals particularly government officers and public office holders may be questioned for having assets beyond means. This exercise will help the government control corruption, besides sending a strong message to the masses that corrupt would never be spared.