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The Ashiana Scam

After the Panama Papers surfaced it was an even bet that Pakistan would be rocked by revelations about improprieties in many areas, corruption cases would include some of the worst scandals. The difference between corrupt practices at the creation of Pakistan and of today is usually not only mammoth in nature but directly or indirectly politicians are mostly pulling the strings from behind the scenes. Because of the housing scheme scams property cost has soared in Pakistan. In January this year the Senate Sub-Committee on Cabinet Secretariat was informed by the Islamabad Registrar that an audit of six housing societies alone had unveiled massive graft to the tune of Rs 12 billion.

Launched in 2010 the Punjab government’s Ashiana-e-Iqbal Housing Project has been immersed in controversy and negative speculation for low-cost housing scheme projects promising modest accommodation at affordable rates to the middle and lower-middle class were seen as a blessing by the public and were greeted with enthusiasm. Because of speculation, mainly by non-filers of taxes, the prices of urban property have skyrocketed beyond the average man’s reach. Unease began cropping up among customers because of hiccups hindering completion, unexplained delays in balloting and allotment of completed units. As the clamour grew uneasiness soon gave rise to accusations of irregularity, this culminated in 2018 with several high profile arrests.

At the end of December 2017 Ahad Khan Cheema, Director General (DG) Lahore Development Authority (LDA) when the ‘Ashiana’ deal was signed, was summoned by NAB. Failing to appear twice before NAB despite summons, this BPS-19 officer displays flagrant disrespect for the rule of law by rudely questioning NAB’s laws, competence, etc with studied rank insolence. Accused of misusing his authority to award the Rs 14billion contract to a favoured developer in 2015 he was arrested on February 21, 2018 during the tenure of the PML (N) government by NAB for misusing his authority. As a “reward” for his services, Cheema reportedly received 100 kanals of land which he allegedly transferred to various members of his family; NAB claims the land was bought with money transferred into the account of Paragon Housing Society.

The other main accused in the Ashiana scandal, Fawad Hassan Fawad, Director General of Civil Services Academy, was arrested by NAB on July 5, 2018. A BPS-22 officer serving as Principal Secretary to both PML-N former Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Fawad was a prime suspect in the Dawn Leaks saga. Often termed as a “de facto Premier” he was considered Nawaz Sharif’s most favorite senior bureaucrat. Considered among the “untouchables” on account of the political patronage and power he wielded, Fawad was summoned six times by NAB but joined the investigation only twice. It is believed he was the prime instigator of the pen- down strike by a handful of DMG officers on Cheema’s arrest, now we know why!

As Implementation Secretary to Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, Fawad in 2013 allegedly pressurized and threatened the Punjab Land Development Company (PLDC) with dire consequences if they did not reject the Ashiana contract initially awarded to M/s Chaudhry Latif and Sons; this was suspended after eight months and awarded to a favourite company Paragon. The Inquiry Committee report that declared the award of contract to Chaudhry Latif and Sons as legal was also allegedly shelved by Fawad. The illegal cancellation of the contract not only resulted in the government having to cough up Rs5.9 million in damages to the contractor but also considerably delayed the project resulting in escalation of cost to the tune of billions of rupees. Even after three years of being “awarded” the contract the new awardee company failed to initiate the Ashiana project.

With two of their top trusted henchmen in NAB custody awaiting trial, the Sharifs face real trouble. The names of female family members of the accused being used constitute a sorry attempt to play the “victim card” and appear innocent. Some PML-N leaders have gone so far as to publicly opine that the Establishment (read the Pakistan Army) is orchestrating the entire affair, though they have no idea about what the Establishment would gain. They remain very conveniently silent about the how and why 100 kanals prime land near DHA Lahore were given to Ahad Cheema and his “victimized” family members by Paragon owners? The PML (N) also conveniently forgets that it is not the present government which initially investigated the bureaucrats or arresting them but NAB as an independent organization.

After days of refusal Fawad Hassan Fawad finally confirmed that he instructed awarding the Ashiana Housing project to former Punjab CM Shahbaz Sharif’s favorite firm on explicit directions of Shahbaz Sharif. On Shahbaz Sharif’s instructions he also pressurized the CEO of PLDC in 2013 to award the contract to Lahore Casa Developers, stated to be a proxy company of Railways Minister Kh Saad Rafique. When confronted with Fawad, Shahbaz Sharif accepted this misuse of authority was on his explicit instructions. On Oct 5 Shahbaz Sharif the PML(N) President was taken into custody by NAB for his involvement in the Ashiana scam, the next day an accountability court granted a 10-day physical remand for further investigation.

According to a 2016 Newsline report, “During 10 months of the ongoing fiscal year, political advertisements worth about five billion rupees were dished out to the media, all aimed at building a good image of the Shahbaz Sharif government. Also, equally important, the government uses the lure of attractive advertisement revenues to keep the mainstream media in line. No wonder, Urdu-language newspapers particularly, publish three-column headlines of Shahbaz Sharif’s propaganda statements on the upper half of the front pages of the newspapers every day. The CM’s statements are published verbatim with the headlines, sub-headlines and words that are issued from the provincial Directorate General of Public Relations (DGPR).” While NAB is doing an excellent work going after the corrupt powerful and bringing them to justice, are we really surprised at the campaign in the media in the face of such outright confessions of misuse of authority ostensibly to benefit political associates at the cost to the exchequer and misery to the public?

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