LAHORE - The Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop has been allegedly found involved in financial misappropriation of millions of dollars received as a part of the USAID-funded project, Pakistan Children’s TV (PCTV).
Reliable sources told Pakistan Today that USAID has already issued notifications regarding the suspension of aid for the programme meant to educate Pakistani children, over ‘severe’ irregularities.
According to the details, the USAID pledged $20 million to the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop (RPTW) which was the sole recipient of the aid while it worked in collaboration with Sesame Street, US.
The project to be initiated with the aid received was to educate the country’s children through entertaining puppet shows broadcast through TV, radio and outreach programmes over a period of four years. Children were to be taught basics such as counting, alphabets, ethics and cleanliness.
Rafi Peer was supposed to complete 78 fresh episodes of the programme ‘Sim Sim Hamara’ in three years, starting from 2010. Currently, however, only the first season has managed to come on-air, while other major portions of the programme, including the radio and outreach programmes have not even been touched.
Sources privy to the development revealed that lack of proper planning, mismanagement and financial irregularities have all been rampant throughout the project leading to an initial delay of a year and a half and finally the suspension of aid, as USAID has already notified the RPTW that it will not fund the programme after September 30.
The RPTW, on their part, have also issued notices to their employees informing them about this development.
Sources claimed that the initial delay in commencing the programme was a result of the ‘inefficiency’ on the part of the Rafi Peer Theatre in coming up with a proper script acceptable to Sesame Street, which was a partner and would approve the script as many of the puppets were its patents. They also said the project amount got revised to $10 million due to certain reasons.
“The delay was only the tip of the iceberg and paled in comparison to what followed. The Peerzadas turned the project into a family affair, awarding all key posts to close relatives, who drew hefty salaries in millions of rupees despite the fact that the programme was mired in delays,” said a source working in the programme.
According to details, Faizaan Peerzada was the chief of the company, Sadaan Peerzada was appointed the programme director, Usman Peerzada the production director, Imran Peerzada head of content, Tasneem Peerzada the senior writer, Sadaan’s wife Mirela the senior creative manager, Sadaan’s daughter Yamina Peerzada was first hired as the creative manager and later as a puppeteer when her contract ended. Sadaan’s elder daughter Alina Peerzada was working as the operations director and Sadaan’s ex-wife Dur-e-Sameen was hired as the set architect.
The sources further alleged that ‘severe’ misappropriations have been committed in procurements, adding that the facilities and money meant for the project have been used to pay off personal debts. “The SUVs provided by USAID for the project were in personal use of the Peerzadas while USAID money was used to pay off their personal as well as Rafi Peer’s debts,” they said.
“The Rafi Peer Theatre had not given salaries to its employees for the past eight months. When they got the USAID contract, they not only settled the salaries, but other dues to the tune of million of rupees to different companies they were indebted to,” the source said. “The entire procurement process is fishy as the tenders were all faked. The theatre would select only those vendors who would ‘accommodate’ them.”
The source added that Rafi Peer also paid off old debts, such as paying around Rs 15 million to Channel Tech for technical equipment. Moreover, expensive security systems were installed at their houses in violation of the contract.
In a very recent incident, Rafi Peer’s owners had their land evaluated for renting it out for the project by their own consultant who estimated its value at a rate much higher than the market value.
The official also alleged that the music contract, like all others, was also given to a ‘blue-eyed’ artist, neglecting renowned musician Meekal Hassan who also took part in the bidding.
A senior official working on the programme said on the condition of anonymity that the misappropriation of money was bad enough without the Rafi Peer Theatre neglecting to broadcast any content.
The contract included radio and outreach programmes as well which did not even take off, as they did not hire anyone for the purpose, the source said, adding that a team of experts was supposed to visit rural areas to educate children on various themes through puppet shows. “These programmes were also to be dubbed in regional languages to be telecast throughout the year across the country,” the official added.
The official stated that the RPTW administration has been offering various ‘attractions’ to the USAID officials concerned for turning a blind eye to the ‘looting spree’, because such blatant misuse of US taxpayers’ money would have been ‘impossible’ in such a strict financial discipline.
When approached, Rafi Peer spokesperson Faizaan Peerzada first refused to comment but then hastened to add that “the information regarding suspension of aid is nothing more than a rumour”.
On the other hand, the US Consulate’s information officer said the USAID’s participation in the programme was concluding on September 30 by mutual agreement of USAID and the Rafi Peer Theatre workshop, which would have received $10 million by then.
“This does not mean that the ‘Sim Sim Hamara’ programme will end… it just means that the USAID participation in the programme has concluded. USAID constantly reviews programmes to make sure they are efficient and have maximum impact,” she said, while refusing to comment further on the issue.