Saturday, June 9, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial June 9, 2018

Entitlement, excess and security

A three-member Supreme Court (SC) bench headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Saqib Nisar has advised politicians, particularly the JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, to arrange their own security. The SC was hearing a suo motu case regarding the use of luxury vehicles by ministers and bureaucrats beyond their entitlement according to the rules. These rules do not permit use of official vehicles above 1800 cc, and in most cases, 1300 cc for government officials. The SC felt constrained to take suo motu notice of the widespread practice of using luxury vehicles beyond these permitted parameters by the beneficiaries of such entitlement. The other aspect that gripped the attention of the court during the hearing on June 5, 2018 was the use of officially supplied bulletproof vehicles to those considered under threat. In the latter context, the court had summoned JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, secretary general Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haideri and PML-N Senator Kamran Michael for still using government-provided bulletproof vehicles. However, their counsel Kamran Murtaza informed the court that the vehicles had already been returned. Murtaza also informed the court that Maulana Fazlur Rehman had survived three assassination attempts. At this the court said the Maulana should arrange for his own security. In a similar vein, the SC inquired about the security vehicles provided to former president Asif Zardari and PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. Their counsel Farooq Naek replied that both leaders were using their own vehicles. The court observed that it would not allow electioneering by political leaders at the expense of the state. At a press conference later, a visibly annoyed Maulana Fazlur Rehman drew a line of demarcation between protocol and security, and in a tongue-in-cheek dig, called upon the CJP and prime minister to exchange protocol with him. Meanwhile the court turned its attention to the security arrangements at Shahbaz Sharif’s Model Town residence and the bulletproof vehicle provided to him. The court was informed that the police posts and barricades had been removed from the area and that Shahbaz Sharif was under a security threat. The bench was told that 105 protected luxury vehicles in the use of ministers and officers had been recovered by the federal government, while 49 of a total of 56 had been recovered by the Balochistan authorities. At this the bench ordered the remaining seven vehicles recovered from Balochistan’s former ministers by the same night else they would be fined Rs 100,000 per day, which would be enhanced to Rs 200,000 per day after a week. It may help round off the picture by adding that following a directive by the SC, the Punjab authorities too were in the process of retrieving luxury vehicles from ministers, officials and the officers of public sector companies. The Federal Board of Revenue was also questioned in this regard, and instructed to recover luxury vehicles beyond entitlement.

It is good that the apex court is attempting to curb if not eliminate the widespread and long standing abuse of entitlements by political leaders and officials. Had the rules in this regard been adhered to, perhaps the SC would not have found it necessary to expend its precious time and effort to save public money and assets. While the well intentioned suo motu intervention of the SC in the matter can only be appreciated, perhaps the solution lies less in detailed tinkering with the ground realities and more in addressing the issue either through enhancing the rules governing entitlements to cover luxury and bulletproof vehicles (for those in public office and considered under threat), or, if that proves unpalatable in the present climate of scrutiny of improper practices and stretching of the rules by the privileged, ensuring the laid down rules are strictly adhered to, without exception. However, the matter of security does not so easily lend itself to a blanket order. A previous such direction by the SC had to be modified in favour of those considered under a real and serious security threat. It must not be lost sight of that although the incidence of terrorism has abated significantly since the military’s operations in the tribal areas, the problem remains in the shape of those terrorists who fled across the border into Afghanistan and their sleeper cells left behind inside Pakistan. Security threats therefore cannot even now be treated lightly. The SC could easily call experts in the security field to guide it on a case-by-case basis whether particular individuals in public life deserve security provided by the state or not. Here, a balance needs to be struck between entitlement, excess and security, whereas blanket orders may well turn out to be a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

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