The Auditor-General’s report on the PM’s special programme for Covid-19 has been released after being held up by the Finance Ministry for six months, not because the government was driving for efficiency, but because it’s being made public was one of several conditions laid down by the IMF for the resumption of its $6.6 billion EFF programme, with $1 billion to be paid in January. The report scrutinised Rs 354 billion, and found Rs 40 billion of irregularities. Though some of that sum would be attributable to codal irregularities, where some harried bureaucrat did not go by the book entirely, there is bound to be a proportion of actual malfeasance, including some old fashioned embezzlement.
For any democratic government, concealment of the report would be bad enough, but this government is particularly committed to transparency. That it was the IMF that had to force its hand indicates that someone’s sins were being covered up. The most irregularities were found in the Benazir Income Support Programme, where Rs 25 billion have audit objections, Rs 5.2 billion of the Rs 10 billion spent by the Utility Stores Corporation have also been objected to. Rs 4.8 billion of Rs 22.8 billion spent by the National Disaster Management Authority also did not pass muster. The process of reconciling these objections will include recovery from the officials concerned, or even criminal prosecution when deemed necessary.
The IMF had extended Pakistan a separate $1.4 billion loan for its covid-19 relief package, and was thus anxious to know how the money was spent. The attitude of the IMF to this report cannot be predicted, even though Pakistan’s Finance Ministry has said that the IMF is satisfied with the report. Even if it is, that should be no excuse for not acting against those whose hand might have been in the till. The report is not supposed to be merely for IMF satisfaction, but must lead to further action. The removal last year of Health SAPM Zulfiqar Mirza in mid-pandemic caused rumors to get started, but no recoveries have been made from anyone. It should not be forgotten that this is taxpayers’ money, and is to be used judiciously. As the pandemic is not over, if an example is made now, it will serve as a deterrent for the future.