‘Thana culture’ in NAB must end


WEB DESK: The PML (N) government is under a lot of criticism from the opposition for issuing a threat of ‘clipping the wings’ to the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). Not only was it bad timing, it was also not an appropriate forum where the prime minister subjected NAB to scathing criticism. For months, the prime minister had been receiving a slew of complaints from not only the businessmen but also from the PPP-led government in Sindh about “harassment” by NAB officials; but he chose not to interfere.

This is not the first time that NAB has been on the wrong end of the barrel of the gun. Under General Pervez Musharraf, it was headed by a General and leading businessmen were picked up in the cold night of December 31st, 1999 in an army-led action. But it goes to the credit of the then Finance Minister, Shaukat Aziz, the then Minister of Commerce Razzak Dawood and the then SBP Governor Dr Ishrat Husain, who successfully impressed upon the then Chief Executive of the country, General Pervez Musharraf, the fact that NAB does not have the knowledge and wherewithal to book wilful bank defaulters. And, unfortunately, NAB was later used for political purposes as well that earned it a bad name.

Pakistani businessmen are no angels; nor are they any different from businessmen in other countries; they are hardly different from a ‘Robber Baron’ who acquires wealth through ethically questionable tactics. The job of the government is not to be in business but this does not mean it needs to provide arbitrage in policymaking. Unfortunately, political exigency has clear precedence over economics in our policymaking processes. For example, it was first announced that return on saving instruments sold by National Saving Centres would be correlated with government bonds auctioned by the central bank of similar tenor.

This was done twice. But lowering of interest rates on NSS did not suit the retired military or civilian bureaucrats; so the policy was discontinued. This policy change provided arbitrage opportunities to big investors who made a pyramid that was legally kosher; though it was at the cost of the national exchequer. Similarly, faced with a generation-demand gap in electricity, in 2002, the government chose to rope in captive power plants established in the private sector to help out in bridging the supply-demand gap. Some 40-odd units obliged. The captive power units were provided gas allocations to run their power plants but surprisingly their electricity connections with Wapda were not severed perhaps because the gas supply was erratic. The opportunity of arbitrage between these two tariffs is alleged to have been abusively exploited by some leading businessmen. Now years later, businessmen/investors are being harassed by the law enforcing agencies for doing so.

Ours is an economy of an elitist state. If the civilian bureaucrats dominate NAB, businessmen tend to employ retired bureaucrats to act as their shield. If the khaki class dominates, then they tend to employ retirees from the armed forces to act as their protectors. Therefore, NAB becomes ineffective. As such, transparency in policy and even decision-making needs to be our hallmark. Or else we would continue to muddle through life.

The incumbent NAB Chairman has done well by way of adopting Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) as well as time-lines for investigation, enquiries and court decisions. However, his time-lines do not conform to Supreme Court’s decision which says: 75 days maximum for enquiry and investigation and 30 days maximum for accountability court to decide a reference. He also needs to propose to the government the much-needed changes in NAB law as well as rules and regulations to strengthen NAB and insulate the institution against political interference.

He also needs to focus on the fact that the plea bargain mechanism was intended to overcome the rising incidence of white-collar crimes as such crimes are quite difficult to prove in a court of law. But paying ex-gratia or financial rewards from the amount recovered for the exchequer may be causing overzealous officers to act unlawfully. This needs to be curbed. In any case the rules framed under an ordinance/law need to conform to the spirit of law. Arrests should only be done at the time of reference is filed in accountability court – not before or after. Thus the rule which allows payment of bonuses or ex-gratia for extraordinary performance is under legal challenges since it does not conform to the NAB law.

NAB officials need to be courteous with taxpayers. Only people with money will invest and provide employment. The chairman NAB must ensure adherence by his agency to the NAB law. The requirement of 75 days for determination of filing a reference and 30 days for an accountability court for completion of hearing on fast track stipulated in the NAB ordinance must be strictly met. Perhaps, like the Serious Fraud Office in the United Kingdom, he needs to outsource investigation to Auditing/Accounting firms having forensic capabilities. This would surely curb if not end the ‘Thana culture’ in NAB and other investigating agencies, including FIA.

Source: Business Recorder