Misusing powers in the anti-corruption crusade

Dawn

A FEW days back a high court judge expressed his strong disapproval of the way businesspersons are being harassed by government agencies in the name of accountability.

“The government has been roaming around the world with a ‘begging bowl’ while the businessmen are being victimised in the country,” Lahore High Court Justice Farrukh Irfan Khan was quoted by a newspaper to have remarked as he ordered the government to remove Shahzad Saleem, the CEO of the Nishat Chunian Power Plant, from the Exit Control List. “Who will make investment in (this) country if businessmen (continue to) face harassment?” he observed.

Mr Saleem had approached the court against the government’s decision to place his name on the no-fly list simply on an inquiry initiated by the country’s main anti-corruption watchdog, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). The inquiry was in connection with an allegation of excessive payments received by Independent Power Producers (IPPs) over the years. A suo motu case on the issue is also pending with the Supreme Court.

The businessman’s name was put on the list, his counsel had argued, in spite of the fact that the petitioner had appeared before the NAB whenever he was summoned and furnished the required

documents. He had further pleaded that the proceedings before the Supreme Court were regarding all 85 IPPs, but the Bureau had initiated action against only his client.

This is not the only case where the anti-graft agency has been accused of hounding businesspersons on mere allegations or frivolous charges. Nor is the NAB the only agency feared by them.

‘Powers are often used by anti-graft agencies to extort businesses. But there is no law to punish officials who bring unsubstantiated charges’

The business community has also long been complaining of harassment at the hands the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR), insisting the actions of these two has contributed significantly towards dampening investors’ confidence in recent years.

“In the last decade, business confidence is at its lowest today. The unchecked powers assumed by both the NAB and the FBR are a major contributor towards dampened business sentiments,” argued Syed Nabeel Hashmi, a Lahore-based businessman.

“They are trying to ensure that honest (government) officers and businesspersons are forced to work in an atmosphere of fear and discouraged from taking any decision for, or contributing towards, the development of our country,” he said.

Pakistan’s anti-corruption efforts in the past have failed miserably because anti-graft agencies and tax collectors were used by successive governments as ‘attack dogs’ against their opponents in politics and business instead of allowing them to function impartially as watchdogs.

“The discretionary actions taken by government agencies leave a negative impact on the business climate and breeds insecurity in the business community,” remarked Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Almas Hyder.

“A vast majority of businesspeople want to conduct business in a clean and legal way, and pay their taxes. But, over the years, successive governments have created regimes that prevent them from paying their taxes and conduct their businesses legally.

“No government agency should proceed against businesspeople without credible charges and everyone should be treated as innocent unless proven guilty. Laws should be improved, tax rates cut and discretionary powers (of the government functionaries) done away with,” he said.

Hasaan Khawar, a development consultant and analyst, thinks that it’s difficult to find a balance between policies encouraging liberalisation of the economy and an effort to clamp down on corrupt businesses for the sake of transparency and documentation.

“When you liberalise an economy it allows a certain number of people to take advantage. And when you push for an anti-corruption drive setting off agencies like the NAB and the FBR, businesses feel scared and threatened,” he stated.

“A government cannot liberalise the economy and clamp down on corruption simultaneously. It has to make a choice… and there’s a cost to be paid for whatever choice it makes. There is no mid-point,” he concluded.

A Karachi-based businessman, who refused to give his name, lamented that the state had given unfettered powers to both the NAB and the FBR to hound people.

“These powers are often used by these agencies to extort businesses. But there is no law to punish officials who bring unsubstantiated charges against a businessman, humiliates them and creates an atmosphere of fear in the business community,” he opined.

“The media should also refrain from conducting a media trial of individual businessmen and sully their reputation until charges brought up by the NAB or the FBR against them are established in the courts,” he concluded.

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