Accountability and economic stability

The state of rule of law is the hallmark for any developing democratic state. The developed economies worked hard to bring about the rule of law in their countries regardless of the position one held, with zero tolerance in corruption and corrupt practices, there is one law for the high and low. The developing nations are up against many difficulties and find it well-nigh impossible to do social and moral justice to its people, who are being sacrificed in an attempt to attain economic advancement, absence of which has torn the fabric our society to pieces.

The essence of our social and economic crisis consists in a progressive devaluation of our ethics and of the norms of our law. This devaluation has already gone so far that, strange as it may seem, they have lost a great deal of their prestige as ethical and judicial values. The aggressive elements of society in all fields are asserting themselves in disregard of all propriety and in disrespect of rules of the game. The laws are becoming less and less effective. They do not protect the poor or the unguarded, the weak and the downtrodden. Principles and rules are made for the weak and not for the powerful individuals who can disregard them at their convenience.

With the advancement of political awakening in the country, the individuals in command of authority are grossly misusing their powers. The maxim that power corrupteth a man and absolute power corrupteth absolutely has often been mentioned to describe this situation. If Islam had not been relegated to the background in this age of laxity and mis-rule and the people had borne in mind only one principle of the Quran that the low and high are equally accountable, Pakistan would have avoided moral, ethical, social and economic deterioration and moved on the road to progress without any hindrance. Moreover, had leaders, bureaucracy, judiciary etc. been called to account through the process of accountability, the history of Pakistan would have been different.

But all that we have seen these years is that the mechanism of accountability has been invoked in Pakistan in the case of bureaucracy and many officers, low and high, were retired whose record was not unblemished after they had put in 25 years of service. No system of accountability has so far been devised on a regular basis for various categories which could give a continuously operative across the board accountability system in the country. The politicians and the powerful segment of the society are conducting themselves largely in a manner as if there is no one to require them to render an account of their actions. People carrying political and bureaucratic position break the norms, the rules and the law so easily and get away with it that one wonders what can make them pause and think and stop from committing irregularities and causing disorders and doing injustices.

Only a widespread system of accountability, which Islam calls upon its followers to enforce and which covers all spheres of life, will apparently take this nation out of the morass. The basic cause why people have hankered after political and bureaucratic power and have misused it, is the lack of accountability. People feel that they can violate rules, break political norms, commit crimes and get away with them. Unfortunately, no segment of the society or the economy has so far been subjected to a regular accountability process. The National Anti-Corruption Strategy of 2002, ever prepared in the country, did not even see the light of the day. The system of accountability must become a fourth organ along with other three organs of the state viz. the Executive, the Judiciary and the Legislature.

The finance minister, speaking at a press conference on 15 September, 2019, has expressed the desire that the accountability process should progress in such a manner that it does not negatively affect the business climate as the country is graduating from economic crises to stability due to hard decisions taken by the government. The finance minister seems to be an alien for the country as he appears to be totally unaware of the ground realities of the prevailing economic system and the level of tax evasion, economic crime and corruption in the country. The recent discovery of currency and assets from some bureaucrats and politicians by NAB are quite evident of the fact. As this article is not intended to deliberate on the economic measures being taken by the government it is only confined to accountability.

The Chief Justice of Pakistan while speaking at the opening ceremony of the new judicial year 2019-20 expressed that “we, as a relevant organ of the state, also feel that growing perception that the process of accountability being pursued in the country at present is lopsided and is a part of political engineering is a dangerous perception and some remedial steps need to be taken urgently so that the process does not lose credibility”. Only time will tell what significance these observations will have on the current selective accountability being carried out in the country.

The government has proposed a number of amendments in the National Accountability Ordinance, 1999 on the pretext that the fear of accountability / NAB is holding back economic growth viz. (i) the power of arrest to be conferred to the accountability courts, (ii) plea bargain and voluntary return to be decided by the committee to be formed by the prime minister, (iii) NAB laws not to extend to a private person or entity not connected directly or indirectly to a holder of a public office, (iv) introduction of a threshold of Rs. 500 million, (v) property valuation to be reckoned by FBR etc., (vi) NAB not to take cognizance of procedural lapses by government servants, (vii) freezing of assets of government servants, (viii) bail of a government servant if inquiry / investigation is not completed within three months. (ix) a case not to be reopened if closed earlier, (x) physical custody for government servants to be reduced to forty-five days, and (xi) exclusion of taxation, stock exchange market including IPOs and building control as action can be taken by the FBR, SECP and Building Control Authorities respectively.

It is not understood why the government intends to exclude taxation from NAB’s purview as presently there is no foolproof system for checking and controlling tax evasion in the country. The only system available for checking evasion is in the respective tax laws operated by the officers of the same group / service. For instance, evasion of customs duty is only covered under Section 32 of the Customs Act 1969 and administered by customs officers. Likewise, income tax is assessed and collected by income tax officers, whereas evasion is also controlled by the same officers. In other words, officers involved in facilitating tax evasion will never check or control tax evasion under the current built in mechanism of detecting and controlling tax evasion under the respective tax laws. Moreover, since the whole tax collection system is riddled and crippled with corruption no officer will go against his own colleague in making out tax evasion cases, thus tax evasion is built in and goes by default.

How the proposed amendments will improve the economic growth and development are only best known to the government. The economy was growing much better in the presence of existing NAB laws. The proposed amendments, if implemented, will further cripple the economy and the social system. The prime minister and his accountability team has already publicly stated the level of corruption and money laundering in the country, which could not be recovered so far. The earlier chairman NAB in his statement has also given horrifying statements of the daily level of corruption in the country. The predicate offenses of the money laundering, inter alia, primarily gets generated from evasion of taxes and duties, misappropriation of public sector development projects and bleeding government sponsored public sector organizations.

A careful perusal of anti-corruption laws of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Qatar, the economies with much higher level of economic growth, have no sections of the society exempted, in any form, from the process of accountability and same is the case with China and the neighboring countries. Besides they do have an oversight process and system for their anti-corruption bodies and they are financially sufficient and do not have to look up to their governments every year for increase in budgetary allocations.

In consideration of the above the legislators, establishment and the judiciary should join hands to device a fool proof across the board accountability system. There should be an oversight mechanism for NAB, it was only once put to performance audit by the Auditor General of Pakistan in 2008, however, the audit report was not made public. Adequate financial resources should be made available to NAB for enhancing its investigation and prosecution capabilities by employing technical experts apart from foreign training of its officers considering the complexities and economic crimes and corruption in the country including money laundering and terrorist financing activities. The process of voluntary return and plea bargain should be excluded from the purview of Chairman NAB and placed under respective high courts. Last but not least a new system for appointment of the chairman NAB should be prescribed to replace the present system of appointment by consultation between the leader of the house and leader of the opposition.

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