‘Don’t try to play Sherlock Holmes’

The News

ISLAMABAD: Something very unusual has happened in the Rawalpindi Ring Road (RRR) project inquiry. The Punjab government had constituted a three-member committee headed by the incumbent commissioner Rawalpindi, who on his own decided to exclude the other two members from the probe and finally submitted his minority report to the chief minister along with a ‘summary for the chief minister’ — which he cannot move under the rules of business.

The question of how the commissioner’s ‘summary for the chief minister’ met no objection from the chief secretary (CS) is indeed an intriguing one. Additionally, neither did the CS object to why and how a three-member committee was converted into a one-member probe body nor did he refer the commissioner’s unusual summary to the relevant departments like the board of revenue, P&D, law, home, S&GAD and housing and urban development — the administrative departments of the ring road –for their views before the matter was placed before the chief minister for consideration. In the absence of inter-departmental consultation, the commissioner avoided an independent assessment of his findings.

A copy of the summary shows that it went to the CM via the CS’s office and Usman Buzdar approved it as well without seeking any explanation of the unusual matters related to the inquiry. Official sources said that under the rules of business, only the administrative secretaries of the provincial departments could move such a ‘summary for the chief minister’. Field officers like the commissioner, if required, could only initiate a “note for the chief minister”.

When The News approached the concerned senior Punjab government official about the validity of the commissioner’s summary, this correspondent was told: “Don’t try to play Sherlock Holmes with me.” This correspondent was also advised by the officer to read the minority member (commissioner’s) inquiry report, which interestingly draws its conclusion on the basis of conjectures, assumptions and allegations as the report excessively uses words like “may”, “possibly” or “reportedly” while levelling serious allegations against others. Those accused of wrongdoing have also not been heard by the minority one-member committee.

On April 27, the Punjab government notified the constitution of a fact-finding inquiry committee on the RRR project. The committee included the incumbent commissioner Rawalpindi, the then additional commissioner (coordination) Rawalpindi and the deputy commissioner Rawalpindi.

However, in his summary for the chief minister” dated May 11, the Commissioner Gulzar Shah said that “in compliance” of the notification, a fact-finding inquiry was conducted but added that the input of the two other members of the committee has not be included in the report because of “questions of conflict of interest”. The summary added: “It is accordingly recommended that the input of other two members of the inquiry team may be dispensed with.”

The summary also states: “Necessary & sufficient facts regarding the misconduct of Mr Muhammad Mahmood (ex-Commissioner Rawalpindi) have been reported in the Report for the Competent Authority”. It recommended that the report be forwarded to the establishment division to suspend Mahmood.

The summary sought the CM’s approval for the acceptance of the fact-finding inquiry without the input of the other two members and the approval of the fact-finding inquiry report.

The summary was forwarded to the chief secretary, who without raising any questions about how the three-member committee turned into a one-member committee or referring the summary to other concerned departments for their input, forwarded it to the CM with the following note: “The contents of the inquiry report and supporting documents clearly call for further necessary action by different departments/agencies of the government. It is therefore requested that the chief minister may approve the inquiry report to the relevant departments/agencies for immediate further necessary action.”

Consequently, the chief minister approved the summary.

It is relevant to mention here that the other members of the probe committee, whose input was not included by the commissioner, had submitted their respective reports, which appeared to totally contradict what the incumbent commissioner in his minority report had stated. The gist of the two reports have already been reported by The News recently.

While the other two members of the committee did not find any approved ‘first alignment’, the commissioner’s minority report as approved by the chief minister said that NESPAK’s (first) alignment was submitted to its client the Rawalpindi Development Authority (RDA) in 2017 and in Dec 2017, the final document of the alignment was submitted and was presented in discussions during the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank’s (AIIB) visit in Feb 2018. The report added that the NESPAK alignment submitted to the RDA in 2017 formed the basis of the C&W department’s summary to the chief minister in March 2018. The summary was approved by the CM.

The report then referred to the same (first) alignment as the “proposed alignment” on which M/s Zeeruk were hired by the RDA to prepare a feasibility study and detailed design for the construction of the RRR. Since the alignment was approved by the CM, the report says, “Ever since no other alignment has the same status. This approval may very well be construed as an approval by the Government….”

Then the report discussed the second alignment containing the Attock Loop and Paswal Zigzag and said that M/s Zeeruk defended the alignment by referring to minutes of the first steering committee meeting held on Nov 19, 2019 including a decision regarding the finalization of the alignment up to Moorat at the M2. It also included a letter by the chief engineer RDA conveying the decision of the weekly progress review meeting adding the M2 to Sangjani and a Variation Order for the change in scope issued.

The report, which in the case of the ‘first alignment’ said that it “may” be construed as having been approved, found the ‘second alignment’ as unauthorized. The report said that the CM was to be formally told through a summary about “the illegal emergence of an alignment, containing the Attock Loop & Paswal Zigzag” but it was not done.

“Given the statutory and rule framework of the Government of Punjab, any further progress on the unapproved and illegal emerged alignment should have been stopped. Instead of using deceit & deception at relevant fora it was the duty of ex-commissioner to submit case containing full disclosure about the unlawful entailing emergence of the alignment.”

The report also sought a probe against member public private partnership (PPP) Dr Farrukh Naveed for “creating assumption” in official minutes of delegation/ authorisation to the project review committee for “approval”. It said that mala fide by Dr Farrukh cannot be ruled out.

Regarding the ex-commissioner, the report said that senior officers like him are expected to know that they may not be able to claim defence of having acted in good faith when held accountable unless such approvals have been expressly solicited and granted in a prescribed or widely accepted manner. The report said that the advertised alignment is not just unapproved by the CM but also illegal.

Referring to minutes of the PDWP meeting, the minority report said that the ex-commissioner discussed the approval of the chief minister of the summary approved in which a case was built around the NESPAK 2019 alignment and transposed the context of approval for NESPAK 2018 to the illegally emerged alignment and maintained, “In this context, question of alignment stand settled after the aforementioned approval of chief minister.” The report alleged that the ex-commissioner got his PC-I approved on the basis of deceitful conduct.

The report then said that without approval of the alignment, the ex-commissioner started acquiring land along the R3 alignment allegedly “to sustain the market hype in prices of land as well as files, plots and registrations of the private housing societies”.

The report said that a project director cannot assume this role and venture into domains of other governments, departments and authorities but the ex-commissioner “assumed all these roles without a lawful mandate for consolidating illusions of approval for the benefit of rent-seeking syndicate.”

It said that land acquisition for the alignment could only begin once alignment was approved but the ex-commissioner went ahead and “got started the payments along the unapproved alignment for consolidating the illusions of approval.”

The report then speculated about the persons and businesses described as the ‘Attock Loop & Paswal Rent-Seeking Syndicate’ for acting in sync with each other and in support of each other for the” illegal gains from the hype created through an illegal alignment and illegal land acquisition payments.”

Some individuals and housing societies have been named in the report who either influenced the new alignment or would benefit from it. The report says that some of them were acting as ‘benamidars’ of the ex-commissioner. Willful facilitators identified in the report are “concerned officers” of NESPAK and M/s Zeeruk.

The report further identified other housing societies, saying, “Possibility of Benami interests in these housing societies is also very likely which may have ensured support to illegal alignment and may have been behind ex-commissioner…”

The Housing societies, however, deny being in cahoots with the ex-commissioner and any other official or company, saying that the RRR is being designed to facilitate traffic flow and ease load on the Rawalpindi city. The societies made it cleared that they were not seeking any out-of-the-way benefit.

Regarding Dr Tauqir Shah, the report speculated about his past association with the ex-commissioner through the creation of benami interests and also by “alleged influences used” on NESPAK. Shah’s alleged rent-seeking intent and conflict of interest, the report says, “is too obvious to ignore”. The report also says, “An influential close relative currently holding public office is also reportedly associated in augmenting the influence of Dr Tauqir Shah on ex-commissioner, as well as on NESPAK.

The report hinted that various other societies along the R3 “may” suffer from the issue of sale beyond approval, sale without approval, presence of benami interest of “public office holders” etc.

It further conjectured: “A look at the list of RFO purchases reveals that some of them may have a conflict of interest along the R3 alignment for being already invested in assets or family/ business linkages. It may very well be presumed that such RFP purchasers may also be taking into account rent-seeking gains as well as gains-making clout over their competitors…” The News sent questions related to this issue to a concerned Punjab government official but got no response to the queries.

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