Fishy business and barracudas

Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Anjum Niaz

The story I relate stinks to high heavens because it’s so fishy. But the stink never reaches the public, thanks to the small fries who act as red herrings to divert the nation’s attention.

Daggers appear drawn between Aitzaz Ahsan and Ali Ahmad Kurd on one end and Barrister Akram Shaikh and Qazi Anwar on the other end of the spectrum. The fight is over the 18th Amendment. Jumping in the fray are Imran Khan and a few television anchors keen to keep the citizens engaged in a never-ending NRO/presidential corruption debate fuelled by Babar Awan. Nawaz Sharif, of late, appears to have joined Zardari’s ranks against an “independent judiciary” because he wants to become the prime minister the third time, many conjecture.

All are trotting out the tired old tattle, drawing us away from the real issue of corruption.

You may recall the recent letter sent to the army chief by Transparency International, Pakistan. The army’s image is being sullied, warns the missive. “Pakistan armed forces’ reputation is at stake due to the action of a few army officers and other army procuring agencies in violation of procurement rules. Corruption by armed forces officers endangers the very existence of the country which may result in the procurement of sub-standard arms due to conflict of interest, and for personal gains over the national cause by a few individuals.”

You may also recall watching the widows and orphans of victims who died due to the negligence of the engineers responsible for the construction of Shershah Bridge in Karachi. These miserable souls were being doled out compensation cheques by the government. The Supreme Court chief justice has already taken suo moto notice of the case. “The question that needs to be asked, however, is: how and why did the standards of civil engineering and construction at the National Highway Authority (NHA) deteriorate to this point?” my sources-in-the-know say. “Which department is next? WAPDA? What if the recently raised Mangla reservoir fails? Millions will perish?”

The NHA jokingly called ‘National Hanging Authority’ was born in the late eighties as the Indus Highway Board. It then became the NHA Board and finally an ‘Authority’ responsible for all federalised roads and their maintenance and asset management throughout Pakistan. With its birth was also born the unholy nexus between the NHA, the NLC (National Logistics Corporation), the FWO (Frontier Works Organisation) and NESPAK (National Engineering Services of Pakistan). These hubs of corruption have within their wings scores of passed-over army engineers and incompetent bureaucrats who have become multi-millionaires, many living in retired luxury, driving BMWs and owning huge establishments. All these government ‘servants’ and retired army personnel are a white elephant pocketing hefty salaries and enjoying perks along with stealing the taxpayers’ money and filching chunks from foreign loans meant for infrastructure development. The NLC, originally raised by Zia to ferry arms to the mujahideen, is now a conglomerate with interests in logistics, toll tax collection, rubber, construction, real estate, CNG, and whatever else they can get their hands on.

‘Plan, promote, organise and implement programmes for construction, development, operation, repairs and maintenance of national highways/motorways and strategic roads’ is the mandate the NHA displays proudly on its website. This very wide scope of work leaves ample space for its employees to indulge in unchecked corruption from top to bottom and across the breadth. “The authority has an operating budget that now routinely runs into hundreds of millions of dollars feeding an epidemic called corruption that has over time fully tainted every entity that has ever come into contact with it,” say sources. “The sheer volume of cash is hard to resist, even for the ministry of communications and the Planning Commission and their officers. Men who are supposed to oversee the NHA are routinely bought out by the authority’s officers and contractors.”

Any guesses who these corrupt contractors are?

The NLC and the FWO! Headed by serving lieutenant-generals, major-generals down to captains, and stuffed like packed sardines with retired and serving army corps of engineers, these two entities are the authority’s biggest contractors. They receive contracts worth tens of billions each year by “hook or by crook.”

Enter NESPAK with its civilian face informing us that it’s the authority’s largest management consultant, responsible for design, contract and construction management, including quality control. “If you analyse the NHA’s balance sheet, you will notice that more than 50 per cent of its contracts are being executed by the FWO and the NLC at any given point in time, with NESPAK as the consultant in charge of quality control in many cases.”

Get the picture?

All the four entities are filled with civil and military officers. “They are retired or passed-over army officers and civilians, usually course-mates, batch-mates and the like. And they are all in cahoots. A case of the fox guarding the pen!” my sources tell me.

Every construction contract has an ‘engineer,’ who is meant to be the honest and impartial third-party in charge of resolving disputes among contractor, client and consultant, as well as approving design changes. “A majority of the ‘engineers’ are again retired army officers, and are nominated and paid directly by the NHA, usually the chairman.”

The authority has had six men in uniform heading it since its inception. The last one sat there for seven years!

My sources give me minute details of how the booty is shared. The commission on construction contracts ranges from 16 per cent for maintenance contracts, decreasing to 6-10 per cent for the large multi-billion rupee contracts. On a bill-by-bill basis (called an interim payment certificate) the authority’s hierarchy is paid according to a fixed amount. I need not go into the details at this point.

“When you understand that contracts generally turn over tens of millions each month, you begin to appreciate the volume of money we are talking about,” say my sources.

They give me an example: say, in a Rs100 contract, the contractor will cough up Rs10-20 to pay in bribes / kickbacks / commissions. How then do the contractors make up for these ‘losses?’ I ask them. “Cut corners! What else?” The result? A collapsed bridge (Shershah); hundreds of orphans and widows; a big hole in the government’s kitty made up of your and my taxes!

One NLC officer serving in a truly remote location is known by his staff for his weakness for the Kentucky Fried Chicken. “Each time a driver is sent to unit headquarters at a distance of 700 kilometres to bring back the fried chicken for the boss.”

Don’t treat the above information as chickenfeed. Nor allow small fries to show us red herrings instead of leading us to barracudas that guzzle public money and eat up anything that comes before them.

While we are blinded by the brazen corruption of our politicians, the presidency and its cronies, let’s also look around us – just as the chief justice of Pakistan has done. But one man cannot control the sleaze that has penetrated so deep that it cannot be pumped out by mere suo moto notices.

Let the army under its chief take cognisance of the corruption carried out by a few in and out of uniform. No more holy cows, please!



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