EDITORIAL: Transparency International Pakistan (TI-P) has raised a very important, and indeed very timely, red flag, cautioning the federal and provincial governments of not following rules meant for uploading contracts awarded to procure goods to deal with the coronavirus on relevant websites. The Public Procurement Rules 2004 allow emergency purchases, in times just like the present, by dispensing with the usual requirement of calling for tenders, etc. But it is still clearly mandatory to upload details of all purchases made by the government on official websites, including prices of goods and terms of procurement, to ensure transparency. And it turns out, for some reason, that no department or ministry busy in acquiring all the necessary equipment and other items to deal with the virus has paid any attention at all to this rather important detail. This ought to cause some concern in Islamabad as well as provincial capitals, not the least because many billions of rupees have already been spent on this business, and questions about corruption, irregularities and nepotism will come sooner or later if it is left unaddressed. It is in just such circumstances after all, when money is flowing and attention is diverted, that the unscrupulous elements in the officialdom tend to bend the rules to their own or their favourites' advantage.

The first question that begs an urgent answer is just how was it possible that none of the ministries and departments of the federal and provincial governments procuring goods to combat the coronavirus were following official rules did not post details of transactions on the websites. And why did we need Transparency International Pakistan to point this out? The Sindh government has now notified all procuring agencies in the province that are selecting “alternative methods of procurement – direct contracting" to upload all information related to all awarded contracts on notified websites. The rest should fall in line soon since TI-P sent letters to the PM's office, chief ministers of the provinces, and registrars of the Supreme Court, high courts, and NAB (National Accountability Bureau). All relevant power centres must make sure this matter is addressed promptly. It would not be in anybody's interest for such things to pop up in the Auditor General's report later, leading to accusations of all sorts of purchases at exorbitant prices. How such things can derail the entire relief effort hardly needs any explaining and the government will have only itself to blame, failing proper and timely action, if this matter does more rounds in the press and indeed gives the opposition something to play with.

This news has come at an awkward time for PTI. The ruling party has just won some important points for transparency with its investigations into sugar and flour price manipulation and the decision to make all air crash inquiries public. Now how good does it look when important procedures are being flouted right under its nose? And somebody will indeed have to answer some very awkward questions if it turns out that this was more than just an anomaly and some shady deals were in fact facilitated. The government would have noted that TI-P wrote to the honourable courts as well, and it's no secret how unhappy the Supreme Court has already been with the government's handling of the pandemic. And it could have some egg on its face if Their Lordships decide to dissect this matter and find irregularities as well. Correcting a mistake is one thing, but there's only so much any official spokesman can say to explain just why there was no transparency at all in all the coronavirus-specific procurements made so far.

The requirement of posting contracts online, even in emergencies, was of course meant to allow relevant agencies as well as the general public to keep a sharp eye on all transactions, compare them with similar exercises by other departments, and make sure no government money is wasted and there is absolutely no chance of corruption. Once such procedures are omitted, the entire exercise stands to lose legitimacy. Already there are accusations by irresponsible elements that the government is exploiting the pandemic and making it appear worse than it is in order to secure international funding. That is all the more reason for the government to ensure complete transparency in all its actions, especially its transactions. Nobody needs to be reminded that the virus has wrecked the economy, and whatever money is needed for essential purchases is increasingly very hard to come by. It is up to the government to quickly investigate why Covid-19-related purchases were not being reported online, in complete defiance of official rules, and if this irregularity has caused any damage to the national interest.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020