A revelation by officials of the National Bank of Pakistan (NBP) to the Senate Standing Committee on Finance chaired by Saleem Mandviwalla that it has detected as many as 600,000 ghost pensioners has stunned the entire nation.
This is not attributable to any public delusion that corruption here is contained as reflected in our improved ranking in the corruption perception index compiled by Transparency International, but because to-date one had heard of ghost schools, ghost public sector officials including in education and the health sector but not of ghost pensioners.
The Accountant General of Pakistan Revenue (AGPR) has urged a ‘reconciliation’ of the numbers of ghost pensioners claimed by NBP by pointing out that the bank was only catering to 375,000 pensioners of the federal government. The NBP officials responded that the 600,000 identified ghost pensioners included two other pensioner groups namely those under the Employees Old Age Benefit Institution specific to those employed by the private sector (industry or establishment hiring more than a certain number) as well as the military. The following day the Deputy Governor State Bank of Pakistan supported the AGPR concerns over the numbers and claimed that they appeared to be “exaggerated” and recommended that mandatory verification of pensioners biannually or annually be undertaken to eliminate the reported ghost pensioners and suggested the use of the biometric system to ascertain whether the pensioner is dead or alive.
The concept of ghost pensioners is not unique to Pakistan even though it is a new source of corruption for the Pakistani public. Nigeria, with a corruption perception index even worse than ours, did acknowledge the existence of ghost pensioners in 2012. In Nigeria, a Pension Transitional Arrangement Directorate (PTAD) was established in 2013. Its Director-General, Dr Nellie Mayshak, stated that by taking advantage of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) all pension offices/boards of trustees of all parastatals funded by the federal government were consolidated and all dubious financial transactions in commercial banks where pensioners’ funds were channelled began to be carefully checked. The relevant Nigerian Minister Okonjo-Iweala claimed that through the Government Integrated Financial Management Information Systems, PTAD was able to successfully consolidate several accounts in commercial banks holding pension funds, leading to the removal of over 15,000 duplicated or ghost pensioners accounting for savings of around 2.1 billion naira annually. The minister added that a nation-wide verification process and biometric data capture for all pensioners was also initiated.
It is extremely unfortunate that in a country where the budget deficit remains a source of serious concern, necessitating going on yet another International Monetary Fund programme with its politically challenging conditions, little effort seems to be made towards ending the drain on the treasury through corruption. Nawaz Sharif’s electoral win is widely believed to be due to his effective election strategy that highlighted the corruption during 2008-13 and his insistence that he would proactively seek to deal with corruption. While mega scandals during the PPP-led coalition era have not yet surfaced, yet the incumbent government remains reluctant to not only proactively deal with past corruption but also to choke corruption by improving governance. The key to dealing with corruption remains improved governance and so far that is not visibly evident in several ministries as well as government departments.