EDITORIAL: The Sugar Commission report that held culpable people from both sides of the political divide has been with the government for over two weeks now. Despite the fact the report highlighted the role of so-called sugar mafia in receiving government subsidies on exports and manipulating domestic prices to garner a double windfall, no action has been taken on its findings. Instead, on June 2, 2020, the federal cabinet decided to conduct an audit of all sugar mills from 1985 through the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA). The anomaly that seems to present itself is that the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government took credit for releasing the report despite it naming their stalwarts such as Jahangir Tareen and Khusro Bakhtiar's family as an unprecedented act of transparency, fairness and across the board accountability. Surely, one would have expected, in the same spirit, action across the board, irrespective of political affiliation. Not a whimper has been heard in this regard so far. As to the quixotic effort to trundle through an audit of all the sugar mills from 1985, perhaps Prime Minister Imran Khan is not being well advised. The country's laws include a statute of limitation, which would preclude action or prosecution even if wrongdoings were proved in the distant past. Two, the law requires only holding on to the record of the last 10 years. Under this dispensation, the sugar mills would be within their rights were they to argue they do not have the record before this legally enforceable time period. If so, how would the audit go back over 35 years, as the federal cabinet wishes it to? Another objection could be that such an audit of the 88 sugar mills in the country, even if the legal points enumerated above are ignored for the sake of argument, may take an interminably long time. Given the report already with the government, which highlights the practices of the sugar millers in under-reporting their profits, underpaying (when they pay at all after long delays) the farmers by manipulating weight and sucrose content of the sugarcane they bring to the mills, and rent-seeking by expecting subsidies for exports of sugar (since the international price of sugar is lower than our production cost) while manipulating the market subsequently to raise domestic prices, if the government means what it says about transparency and not sparing anyone responsible for the scandal even if they belong to the PTI or its allies, what stops it from initiating action against the errant millers? The purported audit may in the light of this question raise suspicions that it is a diversionary and delaying distraction to wriggle out of the commitment to across the board accountability.
The sugar scandal is neither new nor are its contours unknown from the past. Until at least the nineteen eighties, the sugarcane sector had zoning laws that restricted the setting up of more sugar mills than a particular area or region could supply. In the name of the poor farmer, politicians who have made using public office for private gain a fine art did away with this restriction (the Ittefaq group was decidedly keen on this since it manufactured sugar industry machinery). The justification provided was that more mills would compete with each other, thereby benefiting the farmer. No such fond hope was realised according to the commission's report. Instead, the proliferating sugar mill owners collaborated with each other and against the grower. Is there a clearer instance than this of 'acting in one's own cause'? Over the years, whatever protection used to be provided to farmers by the district commissioner or cane commissioners in the past, became a virtual dead letter. And speaking of death, the audit idea, for the reasons stated above, would be a complete waste of time, arouse suspicions of a diversionary cover up, and in any case would likely be a case of dead on arrival.