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Rotting from the bottom too

There is this thought that I have recycled in my columns a few times. And I remember expounding on it a bit in an article in the now defunct news monthly The Herald many, many years ago.

What is it? I had contended that it is corruption that holds our system together. Without it, the entire edifice would come tumbling down. Even if this rather hyperbolic statement is taken as a journalistic bluster, I had intended to underline the moral and intellectual deprivations of our society and an absence of trust in its myriad functions.

I am tempted to broach this subject now in the context of a remark made by former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and the minor controversy that it created. We have to be mindful of the fact that Shahid Khaqan, along with former minister of finance Miftah Ismail, is engaged in an exploratory exercise to ‘reimagine’ Pakistan. Both these leaders of the PML-N are taking an independent stance, without forsaking their allegiance to the party.

Anyhow, Shahid Khaqan had stated that Rs20 billion had been embezzled from the federal government’s scheme to distribute free flour in Punjab. This allegation was seen as casting aspersions on the coalition government headed by Shehbaz Sharif. It upset the caretaker government of Punjab, whose spokesperson angrily rejected the possibility of any corruption in the scheme.

The former prime minister readily offered a clarification. He said that the interim government in Punjab did not have any links with corruption. It is the food department that is corrupt. “I did not talk about any corruption but about the system”, he explained on Tuesday. The point he stressed is that the system has become so corrupt and outdated that it cannot deliver even with the best intentions of the leaders at the top.

There are many streams of thought that emanate from this observation. When we talk of corruption in high places, the focus largely is on politicians in power. Such corruption is probable in almost all systems and climes, though it would not be as glaring as it is in countries like Pakistan. But corruption in the bureaucratic domain would not be so dominant in systems that work. So, we need to divert our attention to the role that bureaucracy is playing in the plunder of our national resources.

It is commonly assumed that law-abiding and honest rulers can set things right because, as the dictum goes, ‘a fish rots from the head down’. Shahid Khaqan is in fact arguing that a change in political or administrative leadership will make little difference in Pakistan. There is a lot to be done from the bottom up if the Augean stables of corruption are to be cleansed.

I know that I have chosen a subject that demands a thorough study of which I am not capable. For that matter, I would find it difficult to delve into what may be called intellectual corruption, involving wilful deviations that may not bring any financial gains. There are other forms of corruption that subvert the interests of the people and add to their misery.

At the higher level, bureaucratic and political corruption may coalesce. An obvious example is that of posting of officials on ‘lucrative’ posts. There is general suspicion that such postings are sold. Our propensity to live with such realities is one measure of the confusion that exists about how a fruitful process of accountability can be devised.

I am told that in a number of services, bribe money collected in the field or on counters is equitably distributed among the staff, reaching even the tables where the buck stops. There are bound to be exceptions. But I can also visualize the emotional distress and the plight of honest officials who are trapped in the bureaucratic web. Their children would never go to prestigious schools or study abroad to then acquire high status in society.

The truth is that I needed some excuse to share the grief and outrage I feel when I hear stories of ordinary people’s encounters with various government departments or with the authorities in any guise. Usually, the barriers begin at the lower levels. Most of us should be aware of what it is like. I have been to offices crammed with lowly functionaries and when I meet top officers of particular departments, I feel as if they are sitting on heaps of garbage.

There is one experience that leaves me with thoughts and feelings that I cannot fully decipher. When I drive through posh localities such as the DHA, I wonder about the owners of those palatial houses and luxury vehicles. These are tangible assets and should have been documented. It would be interesting to know who they are and how they have made their money. What percentage of them, say, are politicians, feudal lords, corporate leaders, businessmen, or serving and retired officers of the government services, the sacred ones included?

This shameless demonstration of power and wealth is bound to interfere with the thoughts and lives of people who struggle for survival at lower levels, particularly in the present times of inflation. What is important here is that the deprived citizens are convinced that the rich have made their money through fraudulent devices and by violating prescribed laws and regulations.

So, with this knowledge, how can they be expected to play by the book? Like the rich, they would also have their justifications for breaking whatever laws and restrictions that are imposed on them. In that sense, it is a collective enterprise. The infection is thus brewing in the roots of the system. What rots from the head also rots from the feet.

There are various strategies and legal as well as administrative prescriptions to deal with the corruption of those who wield power and authority, though nothing has worked in Pakistan. But the task really is to create a new society on the foundations of merit, truth, justice and trust. Is this even imaginable?

Email: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail.com

Ghazi Salahuddin, "Rotting from the bottom too," The News. 2023-05-07.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , feudal lords , Corruption , Politicians , Shahid Khaqan , Pakistan , PMLN , DHA