A matter of great anxiety

EDITORIAL (September 29 2010): In an era where transparency is among the basic criteria to evaluate the health of an organisation, the gross irregularities pointed out in the Auditor General’s Report 2009-10 about the army and ministry of defence make painful reading. The report was submitted to the parliament on Friday. The army seems to be short on discipline, a quality which is supposed to be its hallmark, while managing its finances.

We are told that an amount of Rs 801.06 million was lost during the fiscal year due to violation of rules, Rs 809.54 million due to unauthorised expenditures and Rs 379.84 million on account of non-recovery of dues. Other major causes behind wastage include; blockage of funds, unjustified payments and “weak management of contracts”, which seems to be a tongue-in-cheek comment. What is significant is that the shoddy performance in managing the finances is not confined to any single military arm only.The report said that the procurement departments of the defence production units and various arms of the armed forces, cantonment boards, the Military Estate Offices and the Military Engineering Services were particularly susceptible to “costly errors”. One wonders what lies hidden under the euphemism “costly errors.” It reminds one of Alan Greenspan, who once observed “If I turn out to be particularly clear, you’ve probably misunderstood what I’ve said.” There was unauthorised purchase of milk worth Rs 679.03 million.

The auditors have also objected to unauthorised works by Military Engineering Services, non-recovery of rent and utility bills and non-deduction of sales tax, causing a loss of Rs 71.96 million. Similarly, Rs 135.68 million collected on behalf of the government was not deposited in the treasury. Serious flaws have been seen in contracts and deals finalised with foreign suppliers leading to foreign exchange losses, apart from non-recovery of money from defaulting contractors. Irregularities have been identified in divisions like the Directorate of Munitions Production and the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, Kamra. Objections worth Rs 99.83 million were raised against the air force departments.

These mainly pertained to irregular purchases and flawed construction contracts. Similarly, the Auditor General’s office has objected to the loss of Rs 594.21 million in the navy owing to violations of rules, including irregular purchases and improper contracts. What should be highly worrisome is that the irregularities were persistent in nature as they occurred almost every year. Commenting on the Office of the Military Accountant General’s performance, the report describes it as ineffective, thus causing a loss of Rs 59 million. Irregularities worth Rs 82 million were reported in the affairs of the Military Lands and Cantonments department also.

The disclosures made in the report create a perception that misuse of power and gross irregularities bordering on fiduciary malfeasance do not characterise the working of the civil bureaucracy or politicians alone. The wastage of funds allocated to the armed forces, and that too on the scale reported by the Auditor General, is bound to have a negative impact on national defence and the citizen’s perception of these institutions. That this has gone on year after year is all the more worrisome. One can understand that due to the long spells of military rule that bring the army, in particular, into close interaction with the civilian departments, some of whom are notorious for their corruption, inefficiency and lack of transparency, the ills tend to creep into the military organisation also.

It is time that the armed forces’ leadership takes an initiative to do away with the hangovers of an era, hopefully bygone, to safeguard their image recently improved on account of General Kayani’s support for democracy, plus the sacrifices offered by the officers and soldiers in restoring the writ of the state in the tribal areas and for their timely help in rescuing thousands of people stranded in the far-flung towns and villages, turned into virtual islands by the most devastating floods in the country’s history.

The armed forces need to do away with corruption, which has a corroding influence on discipline, which is vitally needed to enable them to fulfil the onerous task of the defence of the country’s geographical borders, a task that is not possible without the love and admiration of the people at large.

The state needs strong and incorruptible institutions working on a permanent basis as a secure underpinning for the system. A country can survive all sorts of jolts and political upheavals in case it has institutions that are above board in place.

What sustains major countries in their day-to-day working is not always the quality or stature of its political leadership, though these are badly needed, but the high level of professionalism, dedication and discipline in the state institutions. Thus Britain can survive a mediocre prime minister like John Major, and the US, the two tenures of George W Bush.

The army prides itself as the only institution capable of saving the country at moments of grave danger like an internal insurgency, earthquakes and floods. It has to jealously protect its image to come up to the expectations of the people. As Chaucer put it long ago, “If gold rusts, what can the poor iron do?  – App