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EDITORIAL: The word 'Toshakhana' has been all over the news cycle lately, because of all the references filed against our former leaders for misusing it, but very few people are really aware of its significance or even what it is. It turns out that Toshakhana is an official department under the administrative control of the cabinet division, which was established in 1974, to store precious gifts given to our rulers, parliamentarians, bureaucrats and other government officials by other heads of governments, foreign dignitaries, etc, whether as goodwill gestures or simple routine matters on official tours. The rationale is that for all the good our leaders have done us and the country whatever gifts others give them is because of the positions they hold, which is why they must be duly submitted with the department. Furthermore, the State of Pakistan too offers gifts to foreign leaders and officials in reciprocation and those gifts are paid for by the exchequer, The Toshakhana (Maintenance and Administration) Rules 1974, which were revised up to 2012, apply to the president, prime minister, Senate chairman and deputy chairman, National Assembly speaker and deputy speaker, federal ministers, ministers of state, members of parliament, government servants and employees of autonomous and semi-autonomous bodies. Also, while the rules stipulate that all official gifts be deposited in the Toshakhana, officials are also allowed to keep some of them provided they pay a certain percentage of the price as assessed by the official valuation committee.

That is all very good and there seems nothing wrong with letting officials keep the gifts they receive once they pay a part of their estimated value. But since the references of alleged misuse of Toshakhana against former president Asif Zardari, and former prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Yousaf Raza Gilani have been under trial at the Islamabad accountability court, this department has attracted a lot of attention, especially from the press, and new stories are coming out about how it is regularly misused by the same officials that are required to observe its rules very strictly. And it is not very surprising that people in powerful positions have been getting the department to come up with the kind of valuations that are not based on market prices so they would have to pay only a fraction of the value to keep very valuable gifts. And since the kind of gifts that our dignitaries get tend to include things like bullet-proof cars, bejeweled swords and daggers, gold plated and diamond studded watches and expensive paintings and rugs, just to name a few, the tendency to have official figures fudged, and reach a final price that is not reflective of the value of the gifts, is quite understandable in a government machinery already flush with corruption.

The gifts that are not claimed, however, are displayed in places like the presidency, prime minister's office, and various ministries. But it's time, considering all the attention that this obscure department is suddenly getting, that the government revised the rules regarding the manner in which rulers and government officials can or cannot receive precious gifts from foreign governments and rulers. The way the Toshakhana department is being run only encourages corruption and misuse of yet another official facility. Clearly, the option of letting officials keep the gifts they receive upon partial payments at rates calculated officially is not working out. It is encouraging false evaluations, for which officials in question no doubt make it worthwhile for those supposed to conduct the calculations and decide the market worth of various items.

Ideally, government servants and elected officials should not be allowed to keep the gifts they receive, since it is the position they hold and not their persona that is the recipient of the gift. Therefore, the practice to allow gift recipients to buy the gifts should be done away with. Instead, the high value gift items should be entrusted in the care of the national museum for display at its own premises or in official dwellings such as presidency and prime minister's house. While those gifts that cannot be displayed these should be auctioned without disclosing the identities of the recipient or the presenter of the gift. Bullet proof vehicles should be given to the foreign office or the cabinet division's car pools.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020