PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan has sanctioned the launch of multiple investigations against sugar mill owners on the basis of the findings of a comprehensive forensic audit report prepared by the high-powered Sugar Inquiry Commission last month. This is an unprecedented move against an entire industrial sector, which has operated as a cartel and tricked all stakeholders — government, farmers, taxpayers and consumers — for years without any accountability and deprived them of tens of billions of rupees. The sugar cartel has allegedly cheated farmers, evaded taxes, secured undue subsidies and committed corporate fraud with impunity because of its deep political influence over all political parties and successive civil and military administrations. The sugar inquiry has done a good job by pointing out systemic issues in the industry. The report reveals how the cartel duped the stakeholders every step of the way, from the procurement of sugarcane from farmers to the sale of sugar — domestic and export — and how it supplied incorrect and unverified data, besides using its political clout to secure undue subsidies from decision-makers and regulators. It has also underscored the collusion of industry regulators and owners for financial benefit.
The investigations will be conducted by anti-corruption agencies such as NAB, FIA and provincial anti-corruption bodies, as well as financial and corporate sector regulators ie the State Bank, FBR, CCP and the SECP. All will be looking into different aspects of the alleged fraud by sugar mill owners and will finalise their reports in 90 days. For example, the State Bank has been tasked with probing the possibility of sugar exporters having forged documents to secure freight subsidy without actually shipping the commodity to Afghanistan, and bank defaults. NAB will probe the issue of sugar export and other subsidies, and the CCP will be looking into cartelisation that manipulates the market. Asset Recovery Unit head Shahzad Akbar and Information Minister Shibli Faraz promised to “take on all the mafias in the country one by one. Everyone will be held accountable, no matter how rich or politically powerful”. That commitment will be tested in the weeks to come. In the meanwhile, the government needs to satisfy its critics, who are accusing it of allowing Jahangir Khan Tareen, the largest sugar producer and until recently a close adviser to Mr Khan, to fly out of the country hours before the announcement of the probe against sugar mill owners. Mr Tareen, who bankrolled the PTI’s election campaign in 2018, has claimed he was going abroad for his biannual medical examination and not running away.
While industry practices need further investigation, especially to bring to book those who have stolen billions over the years, it is equally important to reform the sugar supply chain. That can be done by gradually deregulating the industry, doing away with the support price mechanism, withdrawing curbs on the free import/ export of sugar and improving corporate oversight.
Beyond George Floyd
THE tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has served as a bellwether event, sparking protests in cities across the world against racism and the state’s brutality. On the surface, it is about one man pinned down by a policeman apparently due to the colour of his skin, and shown no mercy despite his desperate cries for help. Of course George Floyd is not the first victim of police brutality in America, and unless things change drastically, he will not be the last. Another equally appalling video shows police officers pushing an elderly white protester in the city of Buffalo to the ground; the man lies on the pavement with blood oozing out of his ear as officers march past. But as the protests in the US, Europe, Australia and elsewhere show, the issue has morphed into something bigger than simply police violence in America. Thousands of people have taken to the streets calling for equality; this is a cry, as it were, from the wretched of the earth against racism and oppression in all its forms.
Indeed, many so-called First-World countries have built democratic structures and managed to give their people significant freedoms. However, it should not be forgotten that many of these states are built on a legacy of colonialism and slavery, and it is only over the last few decades that they have adopted a democratic course. Moreover, these grim legacies have helped shape the violence and intolerant attitudes today against minorities. Only a few years ago, members of the far right in the US staged torch-lit marches reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan’s activities. In fact, much of the angst of the protests over the past few days can be seen as a reaction against the rise of the far right in the West. Donald Trump’s journey to power has been propelled partly by white nationalists, while in Europe, the ideological children of fascism today sit in parliaments in Germany, Austria and Hungary. But what is equally troubling is the march of the extreme right in the former colonies. Narendra Modi and his Hindutva acolytes are a case in point, while even in our own country regressive forces lurk in the shadows, sabotaging efforts to create a more egalitarian society. In such circumstances, progressive forces must unite and continue the fight for a better, more equal world, and prevent the forces of hate from dividing people along racial, religious and sectarian lines.
YET again lives have been lost in a building collapse in Karachi — this time in Lyari. The narrow residential construction is said to have boasted no less than 40 living units or flats in a thickly populated area. The condition of the building was such that residents were aware of the imminent disaster. The lean five-storey structure appeared to tilt, an ominous sign that apparently compelled some of the families lodged there to escape. So far, six bodies have been retrieved from the debris of the building that caved in on Sunday, and many people have been rescued. But it is still unclear how many people might still be beneath the mountain of concrete which has now become a site from where officials and politicians of all stripes can conduct their favourite blame game.
In a city that has suffered so much on account of feuding in the name of politics, Karachi’s tendency to exhibit strong signs of polarisation in times of disaster was on full display yet again. The governor, along with the PTI MNA from Lyari, was quick to point out that the Sindh Building Control Authority under the PPP government was responsible for the collapse. One wonders if there is a realisation that it is also the responsibility of legislators, as elected public representatives, to try and protect the lives of the voters of their constituency. At the same time, no amount of criticism seems to embarrass the provincial PPP government, which after years of rule has yet to reveal a development plan for this city of 20m. The SBCA too must be held accountable, as it was after a building came crashing down in Rizvia Society in Karachi in March. Unfortunately, such a course hardly leads to positive results. The city is notorious for its haphazard planning and dangerously built structures, many of them constructed illegally in congested localities that can even render rescue work difficult. More tragedies of the sort can be expected if the authorities continue to neglect the state of housing.