Public policy and the politics of sugar

Let the house be put in order and may the people in charge look before they leap

Syed Akhtar Ali Shah April 15, 2020

The print and electronic media are abuzz with the FIA report on the causes of the hike in sugar and flour prices. The report pointed fingers at the companies of bigwigs operating in the corridors of power. The report affirmed the fact that the export of sugar caused a shortage in the market resulting in the price spike, while at the same time, these groups also got subsidies from the Government of Punjab. The report once again highlights the stronghold of crony capitalism on the state — something that has continued since 1947. The emergence of the 22 families bred on import and export licences during the so-called “decade of development” of Ayub Khan is an example.

Let’s analyse the sugar and flour prices issue under the concept of public policy and Rules of Business framed under the Articles 90 and 99 of the Constitution of Pakistan.

There is no doubt that powerful lobbies associated with the politics of sugar and wheat have been influencing the formulation of policies in the body politics of Pakistan but forums like the Economic Coordinate Committee (ECC) have also been formed to offset such influences through their collective wisdom and resolve. Those who are familiar with the Rules of Business must know that public policy such as the export of sugar and other essential commodities requires processing of the initiative by the Ministry of National Food Security and Research to be followed by the approval of the ECC, headed by the Prime Minister. The forum is used by the Prime Minister for consulting on matters of the state’s economic security, geo-economics, and political, economic and financial endowment issues. Although the forum is often chaired by the Finance Minister and senior economic officials as its members, the law grants the power to delegate authority but not responsibility. The ultimate responsibility of the decisions taken by the ECC still lies with the Prime Minister.

Under the Rules of Business 1973, framing of public policy is the exclusive domain of the cabinet and the ministers. The Secretary to Government through his or her hierarchical structure implements this policy. However, while making a proposal he or she is required to invite the attention of the minister to the relevant rules and established policy with a clear course of action. In case of a conflict of opinion, the matter can be referred to the Prime Minister. The same exercise is more or less followed in the provinces, wherein, the Secretary moves the summary through the Chief Secretary. In the process, if input is required from other departments, such as Finance and Law, it is also taken. Moreover, in this context, Rule 5 categorically states that no important decision shall be taken except with the approval of the Prime Minister. A minister under this rule is under an obligation to assist the Prime Minister in the formulation of policy. He or she is required to keep the prime minister informed of any important case disposed by him or her without reference to the Prime Minister. Under the same rule no decisions of policy taken by the Prime Minister shall be varied, reversed or infringed without consulting him.

Seen through this perspective, in this whole game of sugar export and wheat procurement, the business forums or individuals might have made presentations either to the Prime Minister or to the concerned minister or others within the hierarchy. The trading associations make such suggestions every now and then, as maximising profit is in the very nature of capitalism. Analysis of such suggestions is then the duty of the government by seeking inputs from professionals in order to arrive at a well-informed decision. However, it appears that the decision had been taken in haste, maybe projecting the concept of the ease of doing business and quick decision-making as had also already been observed in the Malam Jabba and BRT cases.

In the present case, logically, the summary must have been initiated by the Ministry of National Food Security and Research en route Commerce and Finance, ultimately reaching the Prime Minister through his Principal Secretary. Upon the concurrence of the Prime Minister this would have been placed before the ECC. As such, it is not out of the blue. One then may gather that the ECC did not address the issue with due diligence and nodded the approval. However, keeping the possibilities of human errors aside, one finds it rather strange that a person like Asad Umar, considered as a management guru, could have erred in his judgment while presiding over the meeting. Having got the approval of the ECC, the whole matter must have again been passed on to the Prime Minister through the Principal Secretary for a final approval of the cabinet. If this is the case, then why blame-the-others syndrome?

It is a well-settled principle of parliamentary democracy that it functions under the collective responsibility of the cabinet and the ministry. Moreover, a captain of the team while taking credit of the good work of his teammates must also be ready to take discredit if something goes wrong. Passing the buck is poor sportsmanship. Similarly, under parliamentary conventions a minister is accountable even for the deeds of his functionaries before parliament. They cannot take refuge under the excuse that so and so was responsible in his ministry.

In the light of the Rules of Business, it is now to be seen where the buck stops, with essential questions needing to be answered. These include whether such benefits could have been drawn without the consent of the government headed by a Prime Minister? Who could be responsible under the Rules of Business? Was there any misuse of authority to benefit the companies? What is the civil and criminal liability of all those involved in the process of decision-making? While we wait for the answers, one thing is clear: the house of the government is not in order which a primary indicator of bad governance. Let the house be put in order and may the people in charge look before they leap. 

Published in The Express Tribune, April 15th, 2020.

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