July issue 2009
A Family Affair
In the public consciousness, as in all things, there are trends. Today, the ‘in’ issues to worry about in Pakistan are Talibanisation, women’s rights and, until recently, the judiciary. What goes unnoticed is the creeping menace we’ve faced for 62 years, with no end in sight: corruption. The reader sighs, prepares to flip the page, turn to a blasting headline, thinking ‘I know all this.’ True. It comes as no surprise to the jaded populace of Pakistan that, as Transparency International’s National Corruption Perception Survey released on June 17 showed, the last three years have seen corruption in our pure land rise 300%. Yet what we don’t pay enough attention to is the everyday corruption all around us; the way the families of civil servants and elected officials gleefully jump on the bandwagon in a world where it seems that there is no upper limit to how much they can grab.
It is ubiquitous, and anecdotes abound – especially during the periods when the PPP is in power. The under-18s driving, shielded from police intervention by their government license plates. The third cousins picking up a spare Pajero or two. The wives going on shopping trips with the government driver. A story that has been doing the rounds in Karachi’s rarefied circles for the past few weeks concerns a car which refused to give right of way to a government jeep just because of its registration number. The result? An armed guard coolly exited the huge vehicle and assaulted the driver of the offending car. I can almost hear the reader groaning and saying ‘What’s new? This stuff’s normal.’ The fact is, it doesn’t have to be. If our elected representatives and bureaucrats cannot control their own families, how can we expect them to be even remotely effective in making our country work? All they seem to care about is more, more, more. Our precious tax revenue, the foreign aid we keep begging for, and any other earnings that can be squeezed out of the nation, seem to perpetually board a one-way train into waste and misuse. There is no benefit for the country from this exploitation.
We also often hear of officials getting transferred to a new department, and keeping the car they received from their original one – ending up with two. The first time, at least. Taking into account the rate at which the whirligig that is the CSP transfers people, one wonders whether there is space to breathe in such officials’ garages. Then there’s the petrol. While the rest of us tremble when we hear of an OPEC conference reducing supply to jack up prices, it’s simply not a problem for bureaucrats, with their PSO cards which bill their petrol directly to the government. Given, they do need the fuel for official trips. But in all honesty, dear readers, we know it’s not limited to just that: the families overuse the government cars, relishing their free rides; the cards are used for private cars with fake license plates – clearly, it’s not difficult being devious with opportunities as portentous as these. The countless loopholes in our threadbare accountability system make life cushy for those on top, and crush those at the bottom – the masses. Small wonder then that the daughter of one government official dismisses her father’s colleagues and superiors as “douchebags” – an apt term right from the horse’s mouth. One recalls the boasts of the son of another official, who revels in the fact that his late-night calls to his girlfriend are completely financed by you and me.
That’s not all, folks! Prominent in the budget of every district is the civil servants’ unseen expenditure, money allotted to them in case of emergencies/accidents. This useful little term regularly ends up accounting for millions of rupees, causing one to wonder just how many emergencies our apparently terminally unlucky government servants have to face. How strange, then, that their families regularly go on massive shopping sprees, which amass consumer and luxury goods the masses can only dream of. Oh wait. To quote Shakespeare, “Something is rotten in the state of” Pakistan. And the rot is everywhere. A leading daily recently reported that a play in Islamabad was shut down by a civil servant’s wife, after the organisers refused to allow her underage children in – tantrums like this are about as rare as bribes.
While the public is aware of corruption by government servants themselves, abuse of privilege by their households goes largely unreported. Yet it is even more dangerous than its root, for this type of corruption creates a mentality among large numbers of people. From sons to great-aunts, relatives of civil servants begin to feel that if so many perks are so easily available, taking just a little more can’t hurt. They seem veritably unlimited, and anyway, that’s how things work, right? And so we see people taking advantage of the fact that the police check cars with government license plates less frequently, so that they can smuggle contraband with impunity. The son of a certain high-ranking official in the Sindh government regularly uses his government-provided four-wheel drive to safely bring alcohol to the infamous parties on Karachi’s beaches. The irony of legally-provided vehicles helping the flow of illegal goods would be funny, if it wasn’t so tragic. What the law gives civil servants is a right; what their dependents and the like do with such privileges is a supreme wrong.
To continue to turn a blind eye to this behaviour is to leave the foundations of our country and our institutions at risk of being eaten away by the greed of those whose tenuous link to the country’s money is based on a few shared genes. Our civil servants are often criticised for not being open about their spending. What they should be forced to reveal is just how often their wives take the eight to nine government cars that most grade-22 officers are given, just because, as one drawling teenager told me, “The other car’s not at home.” Once they account for that, we can begin to move forward, away from a situation which makes one want to laugh and cry at the same time.
Speaker’s Corner is a forum for reader’s views. Readers are invited to send in contributions on any subject under the sun. Contributions should be between 600-1,000 words and may be edited for space and clarity. The views expressed in these columns do not necessarily reflect Newsline’s editorial policy.
Professor Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University, Washington, DC and author of The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror became a Global War on Tribal Islam.