With Transparency International ranking Pakistan 116/176 on the Corruption Perception Index 2016, will the decision of Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification contribute to ending the culture of corruption? This is a key question in today’s Pakistan. The way different politicians — both who have been in power and those from the opposition alike — are celebrating the court decision indicates that the answer is a big ‘NO’. Otherwise, it could have resulted in sleepless nights for many of them.
Dealing with corruption requires political will. Although the PTI has staged two dharnas (sit-ins); first to challenge rigging in elections and then against corruption, though focusing only on the Sharif family, no effort has been made to firm up a reform agenda backed up by the people of Pakistan. Depressingly, even after the 126-day-long sit-in, the PTI rather than advocating institutional arrangements for free and fair elections ended up demanding the appointment of military officers at each polling station in the next general elections.
Then the Supreme Court ordered Nawaz Sharif disqualified under articles 62 and 63 of the constitution that require public office holders to be “honest and faithful.” Despite the trial of several months, the court said that there is no evidence that Sharif had misused his power or committed any corruption while holding public offices.
For a corruption-free society, we should at least diagnose the issue and formulate our demands in an organised manner. Unfortunately, I have not come across any comprehensive analysis or a suggested framework from any political party through which they aim to address the issue of corruption.
Some basic issues are not being sufficiently debated. Without recognising and acknowledging them, no meaningful effort can be made to minimise corruption. For example, the size of informal economy is significantly high in Pakistan i.e. approximately 75 per cent of the total. For documenting economy, at first place, declaration of assets should be mandatory for every citizen of Pakistan. But instead we have introduced the categories of filer and non-filer. With this step, are we not trying to safeguard corruption? If the FBR creates a query in the database to look for all those people who paid taxes of more than one million rupees in a year but remained non-filer and paid 5 per cent additional withholding tax on receipt of payment. What is stopping them from acquiring the ‘Filer’ status and declaring their assets? Such persons may have assets which are far higher in volume than their visible income sources. Such malpractices can be identified once the land and property computerisation is done across the country.
Similarly, the fake property holders will also be identified when the taxpayers’ record is compared and matched with computerised property record through an automated system. As a first step, the government should immediately make it mandatory for people to be a filer at a certain limit of withholding deduction.
The excessive use of cash in heavy transactions e.g. in property, motorcars and electronic devices, is another loophole that allows people to maintain invisible economy. Except at some pharmacies and fuel stations, often debit/credit card machines either are not available or are found out of order at regular shopping places. Also some shops charge 2.5 per cent additional amount if the payment is to be made through cards. Avoiding the use of electronic payment methods are for mutual benefits of sellers and buyers as they can hide their sales records and sources of income.
Our neighbour country India, one of the largest economies in the world, has withdrawn the currency notes higher than hundred rupees’ denomination and is also encouraging people to make transactions electronically. With the aim to fight corruption, the government is improving legislation and policy as well as taking unpopular decisions. This year, major tax reforms have been made with the slogan of ‘One Nation One Tax’.
The procurements by public offices are high risk area for corruption. Generally, when people talk about this issue they actually mean commissions and kickbacks received by the officeholders in mega projects. Again, there are numerous policy level and technological solutions available to control corruption in the public sector. It requires a higher degree of integrity, transparency and accountability for which the first step is to define, implement and promote ‘conflict of interest’ policy in the public sector and political institutions managing public funds. In addition, there is a need to expand the scope of E-procurement at each tier of governance which should report in compliance with the procurement policy and procedures.
In order to promote accountability, the government institutions should encourage and allow civil society organisations to monitor the management of funds under the umbrella of Right to Information Act. The law should be improved for a greater access of civil society organisations to the public contracts and documentation of procurement processes e.g. comparative statements, eligibility and track record of bidding firms as well as implementation of the conflict of interest policy. Such practices will not only refine the overall procurement systems but also increase value for money.
The nexus of politicians and bureaucrats has weakened the accountability mechanisms in Pakistan. The Supreme Court of Pakistan has shown disappointment on the performance of National Accountability Bureau. There is a need to protect bureaucracy from political influence by introducing independent and effective mechanism of appointments and promotions of senior government officials.
The periodic military disruption in democratic system has increased a sense of insecurity among political leadership and has pushed them to build their financial power and expand it beyond the boundaries. Massive money-laundering in Pakistan has taken place since early 1990s. This complex situation needs multiple steps to be taken including the assurance of political and democratic stability of institutions, empowering citizens to exercise their voting power for the greater interest of Pakistan, bilateral agreements with other countries to investigate and trial for the cases related to money laundering etc.
The public service messages for curbing corruption usually refer to moral and ethical standards e.g. ‘Rizk e Halal Ain Ibadat Hai (Permissible earnings are same as worship) or the most recent “Say No to Corruption”. It would be better if we clearly communicate in our messages that committing corruption is a criminal offense and is punishable according to Pakistan Penal Code (Act XLV 1860).
The government and civil society should jointly initiate a process of consultative dialogue with key stakeholders both in the public and private sector to review and reflect on issues and challenges threatening Pakistan’s economy. Corruption is a disease for which ‘prevention is better than cure’.