Everyone dreams of owning a house, particularly those from the middle and lower middle classes who are unable to own property because of the high cost of real estate. Because of speculation in real-estate, mainly by non-filers, prices have force-multiplied making it beyond their reach. Promising to build thousands of houses, the Punjab govt introduced two low-cost housing schemes in 2010, the Ashiana-e-Iqbal and the Ashiana-e-Quaid in Lahore.
Former Punjab Chief Minister (CM) Shahbaz Sharif laid the foundation stone of Rs. 14 billion projects during his first tenure with great fanfare. However, with the passage of time, the govt was unable to lay the foundation of even a single house despite collecting installments worth billions. Three development authorities are involved in Ashiana housing scandal including Lahore Development Authority (LDA), Punjab Land Development Company (PLDC) and Lahore Casa Developers (reportedly owned by the Saad brothers). As complaints by those affected grew vociferous and allegations of corruption, irregularities and mismanagement surfaced, an investigation into the project by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) unearthed a mega corruption scandal worth Rs. 14 billion. The project has since been abandoned.
On Sat, Oct 6 an accountability court in Lahore granted NAB a 10-day physical remand of former Punjab CM and President (PML-N) Shahbaz Sharif. A day earlier he was arrested when he appeared before NAB’s investigating team having failed to satisfy them about his alleged role in awarding the contract in the Ashiana Iqbal Housing Scheme to his favorite firm in gross violation of the rules. He is allegedly also involved in the corruption pertaining to the Rs 14 billion Ashiana Housing project and Rs 4 billion Punjab Saaf Pani Company scam. On Jan 16 as Punjab CM he was accused by NAB of ordering the cancellation of the award of contract of Ashiana to the successful bidder, Chaudhry Latif, and Sons and awarding it to Lahore Casa Developers, a proxy group for Paragon City Private Limited, this resulted in the loss of approximately Rs193 million. His detention by NAB was apparently prompted by testimony incriminating him given by his former Secretary Implementation Fawad Hassan Fawad, who is himself in NAB custody for his alleged involvement in the Ashiana case. With by-elections, less than weeks or so away his arrest could not have come at a worse time for the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).
Shahbaz Sharif maintains that canceling the contract was done properly by following the rules since the original company had itself been blacklisted for corruption. This matter will have to be investigated thoroughly by NAB. Coming under sharp criticism, NAB must conduct this investigation in a fair manner and establish itself as being totally independent of govt direction given the hue and cry being raised by all the political parties on Opposition. The PML-N has tabled a resolution in the Punjab Assembly against the arrest and warned of nationwide protests if Shahbaz Sharif was not released before by-elections scheduled on Oct 14.
A rather unsavory corollary of this episode is the vicious rumors disseminated by those having vested interest hinting that this is another episode in the collision course between the PML(N) and certain state institutions. This includes the canard that the arrest is payback for Rana Mashhood’s controversial comments suggesting a deal was agreed between the Establishment and the former CM to return him to power in the province. While this was denied both by his party leadership and a Pakistan Army spokesman, PPP’s Khurshid Shah termed the arrest as evidence of “revenge politics” orchestrated to distract attention from the PTI Govt’s 100-day performance record.
Shahbaz Sharif has the reputation for huge high-profile development projects in Punjab, particularly in Lahore, while portraying himself as a paragon of virtue and honesty with the best interests of the country. He was perceived to be a man in a big hurry considering the haste with which some of his projects have been undertaken. In 2009, as CM he decided to set up Danish schools in certain districts of the province and spent Rs. 5 billion building schools without even preparing a mandatory PC-1 for the project. In gross violation of rules, the funds were spent from the non-development funds earmarked for the construction of schools. According to a 2016 report in Newsline magazine, “When Imran Khan’s popular showing in Lahore in October 2011 created ripples in Punjab politics, Shahbaz Sharif launched a metro bus project in Lahore. The work on the 30-billion rupee project was started in haste without even doing the requisite soil testing for the pillars of the elevated track. The Provincial Planning and Development Department raised 11 objections to the project, but it was executed without addressing them.” Unquote.
The 1180 MW Bhikki power project being built since 2015 was to be jointly set up by Harben Electric of China and American General Electric (GE) at a cost of Rs. 55 billion. Favorite blue-eyed bureaucrat Ahad Cheema who was serving as DG Lahore Development Authority (LDA) was made the CEO of Quaid-e-Azam Thermal Power Company which would execute the Bhikki project. Cheema demanded an interest-free loan of Rs. 15 billion for purchasing of machinery from GE, USA. Objections were raised by the finance department as bridge financing was not part of the agreement but Cheema remained adamant. The CM intervened and in a meeting convened, the former CM reportedly abused top officers of the Finance Dept for refusing to grant Cheema’s demands. Rather than be a party to an illegal process, Yousuf Khan, the provincial Finance Secretary sought a transfer from Punjab. Hundreds of stories abound regarding how Shahbaz Sharif ruled over Punjab with his accomplices of pliable junior civil servants posted to senior positions said to be the Sharif family’s regular abettors and enablers in their financial shenanigans. Ahad Cheema and Fawad Hassan Fawad (the last two presently in NAB custody in the Ashiana housing scam).
NAB has been doing some very good work since it was established, there can be no question about its absolute commitment to eradicating corruption in an open-handed and across the board manner. The real purpose behind the hue and cry being raised against NAB is to somehow force NAB into releasing Shahbaz Sharif and make it as toothless and more malleable as possible. NAB’s recent initiatives in going after the powerful have been equitably fair and targetted evenly, however, the Opposition’s “spin doctors” would have everyone believe that this has been prejudiced and selective. NAB has been hounded in the past for doing its mandated task, open threats have been hurled to “clip NAB’s wings” and warning it to “behave”. The clamor against NAB is an apt indicator that despite the many desperate attempts to derail their “mission statement” since 2002 by selective accountability by both military and political leaders for their own selfish reasons, accountability has finally come back on track and is headed in the right direction. In fact, thanks to NAB other anti-corruption agencies have had a write-up call.
The pursuit of accountability is a zero-sum game pursued without fear or favor, unfortunately, political nuances, client-patron relationships, and self-interest have been compromising its process. Accountability is fundamentally flawed when nepotism at the highest reaches of government and society emasculates the political will to root out corruption. Now that NAB has secured the custody of Shahbaz Sharif for 10 days a compelling case of alleged corruption and malfeasance must be made. If it fails for whatever reason, allegations about NAB working on a partisan agenda of the Establishment will get stronger as will those decrying NAB. While for its part NAB must not hesitate to take legal measures against those elements who are pursuing a false motivated anti-state agenda disseminating fake news and distorting this fact, one looks to the Supreme (SC) to take action against elements that are using the proceeds of ill-gotten wealth for defending corruption, that is clearly anti-state and unconstitutional.
(A defense and security analyst, the writer is a member of World Economic Forum’s (WEF) “Partnering Against Corruption Initiative” (PACI)).