Let her be damned

The work done by Ayesha Mumtaz as head of the Punjab Food Authority has been unprecedented

Kamal Siddiqi January 15, 2017
The writer is the former editor of The Express Tribune. He tweets as @tribunian

The work done by Ayesha Mumtaz as head of the Punjab Food Authority has been unprecedented. Thanks to this brave woman who took on the powerful and mighty who own restaurants, food factories and soft drink production units, the people of the province were able to see for the first time the malpractices and unhealthy activities that take place in this sector.

Restaurants, including those in so-called five star hotels, were sealed because they were serving stale food or not keeping in line with requirements for hygiene in food handling. Once again, people of other provinces admired the work being done in Punjab.

For the first time we heard that there was indeed an entity by the name of the Punjab Food Authority whose job was to ensure quality when it came to food production and sale in the province. We do have food authorities in other provinces too but no one hears of them as they are headed by corrupt bureaucrats whose only job is to collect money from restaurants and other food related enterprises. This in turn gives these entities a licence to sell and serve whatever they want to. We have heard stories of people dying after eating food served at some shop or restaurant. But no action is taken.

Ayesha Mumtaz broke that mafia and now she has to pay for it. None other than the Special Branch has taken it upon itself to prove that this brave woman is guilty of taking bribes. This is the same arm of the police that has kept silent for all these years as people have been served sub-standard and poisonous edibles with no action. In fact, this is the first time that the Special Branch, or for that matter any government investigation agency, has taken upon itself to investigate irregularities in the food sector. Imagine the irony.

After the raids conducted by Ayesha Mumtaz what became clear is that she had stepped on too many toes. Even the right-minded Shahbaz Sharif, who initially supported the raids, had to take a step back when the high and mighty of Punjab’s food business - which include both elected representatives as well as members of the civil and military bureaucracy, were brought to book.

Suddenly people started to take notice of the malpractices being committed in this sector. Many were shamed and their businesses sealed. This state of affairs could not continue for long. So first Ayesha Mumtaz was summarily removed from her office and a powerless and possibly inept official was brought in to replace her.

Since then, the PFA has gone back to its old self and raids are rarely conducted. The money chain has been restored and the PFA staff are once again on the take.

But that was not enough. An example had to be made of Ayesha Mumtaz.

In a country where the prime minister and his family has siphoned off billions over the years without any inquiry in place, the country’s premier investigation agencies are focusing their attention to prove an honest and upright official guilty of corruption. It is a weak chain and a media campaign has been launched to somehow link the official’s former office driver and a media anchor with her. The evidence is not there but this has not stopped officials from accusing the former PFA chief of corruption.

Instead of appreciating her services and asking other provinces to follow the example, what we are seeing is that the upright official is being punished to set an example to other. The food industry in Pakistan is notorious for lack of quality and for cutting corners. Time and again we have seen how unscrupulous people misguide and cheat hapless consumers into eating items that are unfit for human consumption. In this country, adulteration is common. Also common is introducing harmful ingredients or mislabeling food items. A big issue is also hygiene or the lack of it. Thanks to Ayesha Mumtaz we were able to see how prevalent these practices are and how even top hotels are not immune from them.

No one has spoken in defence of Ayesha Mumtaz because she has no political following and is not one to be able to make this into a religious or social issue. But in the end it is the people who will suffer.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 16th, 2017.

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