The arrest and detention of Ahad Cheema, a grade-19 bureaucrat and ex-DG Lahore Development Authority, by the National accountability Bureau (NAB) authorities in Lahore last week was strongly reacted to and resisted by Punjab government and its elite civil bureaucracy, the Pakistan Administrative Service (PAS), in the province. A number of senior PAS officers observed pen-down strike to show ‘solidarity’ with their detained comrade. Moreover, they also mounted pressure on the inferior-cadre officers from the Provincial Management Service (PMS) to make them join this protest campaign against the NAB. Punjab Civil Secretariat, which is the administrative nerve center of the province, remained closed as some senior civil bureaucrats just locked their offices to amplify the impact of their anti-NAB protest.
Unfortunately, while the provincial civil bureaucracy was unjustifiably and unlawfully protesting against the arrest of Ahad Cheema, Punjab government chose to be a silent spectator. Instead of pro-actively intervening to stop protesting civil officers from behaving inappropriately, various government ministers were seen apologetically defending these officers. They also accused the NAB officials of transgressing their legal domain by making this ‘illegal and unjustified’ arrest. So, Punjab government and its elite civil bureaucracy somehow tried to exhibit a typical how-dare-you attitude towards the NAB by pretending that they were just above the law. And they simply are not accountable and answerable to anybody else.
In November last year, Chairman NAB directed the DG NAB Punjab to probe multiple charges against 56 public limited companies established by Punjab government after receiving various complaints of alleged corruption, irregularities, waste of public funds, favoritism in appointments, non-transparency in tendering and inordinate delay in completing various projects vis-à-vis these public companies. In fact, the recent arrest of Ahad Cheema is part of the same probe against these companies. He has been in-charge of various public projects initiated and completed by Punjab government during the last few years. There is also high likelihood that the NAB would arrest and probe more officials associated with the Punjab government’s other public companies and projects.
Before criticizing the NAB for unnecessarily harassing and victimizing the bureaucrats in Punjab, it should never be forgotten that the transparency and performance of the public companies of Punjab government have long been a hot topic of discussion in the country. There have also been some media reports regarding the alleged corruption to the tune of billions of rupees in the execution of various public projects in the province. Similarly, Auditor General of Pakistan has also pointed out a number of financial irregularities in the operations of various public companies in Punjab. Regrettably, instead of referring this matter of alleged corruption to any anti-graft investigating agency, Punjab government chose to conduct an internal inquiry apparently to brush this matter under the carpet due to obvious reasons. It is believed that Punjab government would not like to allow an independent probe into the financial affairs of these companies as a large number of provincial ministers and high-ranking civil servants are ex-officio members of the Board of Directors of these public companies. Moreover, Lahore High Court has also been moved by a petitioner seeking some directions to the NAB to probe the allegations of corruption against these companies.
Being the premier anti-graft body in the country, it was incumbent upon the NAB to thoroughly probe the financial affairs of public companies constituted by the Punjab government as a large number of allegations of corruption had already been leveled against these companies. Under the NAB Ordinance 1999, an authorized NAB official can initiate inquiry to probe an allegation of corruption against a public office-holder upon receiving a complaint or at his own motion. Similarly, Section 24 of the NAB Ordinance empowers Chairman NAB to arrest an accused person at any stage of the inquiry or investigation, provided the accused is produced before the Accountability Court within a period of 24 hours of such arrest. Therefore, NAB officials have yet not violated any provision of the law while arresting, detaining and investigating Ahad Cheema.
This is not the first time that the NAB is being criticized by the incumbent PML-N government. Two years ago, the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif actively intervened to warn the NAB officials for probing corruption charges against various government functionaries in Punjab. The government also hinted at amending NAB Ordinance to form an ‘independent commission’ to watch this anti-graft watchdog. Now, reportedly, the government is also considering forming a supervising board to ‘regulate’ the powers of Chairman NAB to order the arrest of the accused persons. This would certainly be an unfortunate development.
According to its SOP’s, the NAB generally conduct a thorough preliminary inquiry after receiving a complaint against any person. At inquiry stage, instead of making an arresting, it only summons such person requiring him to join the inquiry proceedings. After finding sufficient grounds for further proceeding against any person, it formally investigates into an alleged act of corruption. And finally, after collecting credible and actionable evidence, it decides to prosecute a person by referring the matter to Accountability Court in the form a reference. At trial stage, it is not the NAB, but the court which make critical decisions regarding the detention or release of an accused person during the pendency of trial. Again, it is the court which either eventually convicts or acquits an accused person at the conclusion of a trial.
The power of Chairman NAB to arrest an accused person is not an extra-ordinary legal power. Under the criminal law of the land, an SHO of the police can arrest and detain any individual involved in a cognizable case even without a court warrant. In fact, these powers have been granted to various investigating agencies to enable them effectively discharge their legal functions. Therefore, instead of curtailing the powers of the chairman NAB regarding the arrest and detention of an accused person, it is advisable to grant similar powers even to a junior NAB officer to facilitate the process of accountability. In fact, the pre-trial detention is a contentious issue worldwide. But, in order to exercise checks on the unfettered powers of an investigation agency, an effective judicial supervision or control is generally recommended.
Mian Shehbaz Sharif has been all-powerful chief executive of the Punjab for the last 10 years. Noticeably, during this period, he has tended to wield and exercise his authority in an autocratic fashion in the absence of any vibrant regulatory and accountability bodies in the country. He has initiated and concluded many controversial public projects like mechanical tandoors and Sasti Roti scheme, laptop scheme, Daanish School System, Apna Rozgar scheme, Ashiana Housing scheme and Saaf Pani scheme etc. Similarly, a number of intra-city rapid bus transport projects launched in various cities in the province are also criticized for being too expensive and highly-subsidized. These misconceived, poorly-planned and hurriedly-executed public projects have cost the public exchequer heavily. There has never been any adequate information provided about these white elephants in Punjab.
CM Punjab also set up a parallel administrative structure in the province in the form of dozens of public limited companies. The heads of most of these public companies have been appointed on a pick-and-choose basis rather than through proper public advertisements. These CEO’s have been receiving lucrative remuneration of millions of rupees without delivering anything significant. Similarly, public procurement regulations have mostly been ignored by these public companies putting a big question mark over the transparency of various projects executed by these companies. Ahad Cheema is believed to a blue-eyed bureaucrat of CM Punjab. Inexplicably, he was promoted to the next grade as soon as he was arrested by the NAB officials last week.
Being the largest province, Punjab receives more than half of the funds from the federal divisible pool as its share under the NFC award. Moreover, a lot of CPEC-related investment is also pouring into the province. Therefore, Punjab government needs to devise an efficient and transparent financial regime for the optimal utilization of public resources in the province. Indeed, no one can be allowed to waste or misappropriate the financial resources of 110 million people in Punjab. No matter one is a Khadim-e-Aala (superior public servant) or simply a civil servant.
The writer is a lawyer and columnist based in Lahore.