Feb 28, 2009

Corruption at all levels

EARLIER in the week, a report in this paper said that the financial bid for a Senate seat in the tribal area had reached Rs300m and was still rising.
To get elected, a candidate needs votes from 12 members of the National Assembly. Divided equally, each MNA would thus earn Rs25m — a sum enough to sustain 7,000 tribal households for a month.
A tribal MNA is usually also head of his clan and expected to safeguard the interest of its members in dealings with the political agent and the government. Is it any wonder then that the jihadi clerics are able to persuade the poor folk to take up arms to overthrow a system in which they are so ruthlessly exploited in the name of democracy?
The militants hark back to the times when the caliphs carried food on their backs to starving households and shared war booty equally with ordinary citizens. To them, that is Sharia, and secular democracy, as Maulana Sufi Mohammad put it, is a fraud.
The magnitude of electoral corruption in the settled areas is believed to be no less. However, its benefits may be more thinly spread. But hardly is anyone ever hauled up by the election commission or the courts. The Dawn report goes on to say that some right-thinking tribal elders of Miranshah, North Waziristan, had appealed to the chief election commissioner to intervene.
Surely he will not, and even if he does he would not find evidence that meets the exacting standards of our laws. The statements of expenditures submitted by candidates are routinely accepted and filed. The tribes are thus made to believe that Sharia supplemented by their own customs is the answer to their woes.
The money paid to get elected either comes easily, as to the landlords, or is made illegally as by government quota-holders of LPG, diesel or other such commodities. In the tribal areas, money is made by trading in arms or, increasingly, in narcotics. It is invested in elections, only to earn more of it through horse-trading or securing contracts, lands and job quotas which in turn are further traded. Corruption thus snowballs.
Take just one example. Most government jobs are sold and then clout is used to get nominees to lucrative posts to recover the amount paid by the people. In the 1960s, when I was director of taxation in Karachi, an official in the motor registration office felt that he was doomed to starve. Thirty years later, when I became minister of the same department for a short while, the number of officials posted was three times the places available.
The bribes shared by employees for registration of a single smuggled or stolen vehicle far exceeded their salaries. Another example: presently there are more liquor shops in Karachi to cater to its less than five per cent non-Muslim population than there were for the entire population in the past. Recently, a newspaper report said that it takes millions to procure licences.
Politicians, bureaucrats, soldiers, judges, traders, tax evaders, smugglers, you name it, are all caught in an ever-expanding web of corruption. The outcome of this in the tribal areas is called rebellion. Elsewhere, it is a crime. The so-called writ of the government is defied as much in civilised Karachi as in wild Waziristan. The form of defiance differs, the root cause is the same — corruption. In fact, all evils of society and instability in the country can be traced to corruption. Illiteracy and poverty are unfairly blamed.
In Transparency International’s annual corruption ratings Pakistan has been consistently among the worst. Countries like Denmark, New Zealand and Singapore are the least corrupt. Transparency ranks the countries surveyed ‘in terms of the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among public officials and politicians’.
If it were also to take into account the money spent on electioneering, illicit trade, sale of jobs, misuse of government transport and, above all, nepotism and sifarish, Pakistan would find itself in the company of Myanmar and Somalia.
Paradoxically, the politics of conciliation and counter-terrorism, instead of lessening has boosted corruption. Having five ministers where one would do is one of the reasons why. The same, though to a lesser extent, applies to officials. Imagine a minister using two or more vehicles when he is entitled to just one.
Even a supposedly austere minister of tourism couldn’t resist snatching a Land Cruiser from his corporation chief causing a furor. In the compromise that followed, the minister kept the vehicle and the chairman got his job back.
The economy is in the dumps but corruption continues to boom. The people at the lower echelons of government see no earthly reason why they should not take bribes or squander public money when those at the top recklessly indulge in both, without fear of accountability. Even routine anti-corruption drives have been all but abandoned for they were only causing more corruption. Corrupt officials have nothing to worry about, for those who should check them don’t do their job as they are probably more corrupt themselves.
Imagine the irony and shame of it all. We broke away from India to preserve our Islamic way of life which, quintessentially, is marked by honesty in public dealings. Today, India ranks 50 places above Pakistan in the Transparency scale. India’s corruption graph is going down while ours has been creeping upwards and now seems poised to climb sharply.
Political leaders at the top have the legal authority to check corruption but lack the moral courage to do so, for they themselves, with few exceptions, live under the shadow of corruption. It goes all the way down the official ladder.
The two big chiefs of Pakistan’s politics — Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif — who are also said to be the richest should break this conspiracy of silent collusion by publicly declaring their wealth at home and abroad and letting us know how they made their money. Other party chiefs, generals, judges and secretaries should follow suit. The people must know how rich their rulers are even if they can’t stop them from getting richer.

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