EDITORIAL: The National Logistics Cell (NLC) must provide answers to charges levelled against it by the Planning Commission (PC) that it needs to be reined in because it does not "share details even about audit-related paras in meetings of the departmental accounts committee (DAC)." NLC is not a sovereign entity, after all, and for things to reach the point that the secretary to the PC has to complain to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that the Cell was "beyond the control of his ministry" and it should be an attached department of the ministry of communications, puts it in a very awkward position. It seems that the NLC management has been unable to explain to PC its position over audit paras that mentioned "financial irregularities" that ran into billions of rupees. In fact, auditors found that NLC neither observed procurement rules nor did it safeguard public money.
There's more. Auditors also said that when NLC executed an agreement with the Karachi Infrastructure Development Company for carrying out work on the Green Line Bus Rapid Transit System (at a cost of Rs1.07 billion), its management "compromised transparency, deprived the entity of the advantage of competitive rates, and denied a fair opportunity to other prospective bidders for participation in the bidding process." There's apparently also mention, through another audit para, of the auditor general saying that NLC made an overpayment of Rs178 million to several subcontractors. These are very serious charges and for NLC to consider the case closed because it conducted an internal inquiry and fired two officials is simply unacceptable and it should not be the end of the matter.
And it only embarrassed itself even more with its other excuse; that auditors raised those points on the basis of a classified document and therefore it was a breach of confidentiality. This was, in particular, because the auditors pointed to "undue favours" that the Cell had extended to a private company by awarding it a contract worth Rs120 million, even though it clearly lacked expertise in the construction business. Now the attention of at least some organs of the state will turn towards untying this ugly knot. This is just the kind of needless disregard for rules and procedures that makes the government machinery so inefficient.
PC has already talked to the defence ministry about this problem so it's not immediately clear if a reversion to the status quo ante is possible. Yet even if the transfer that PC demands is made, NLC will still be a subsidiary body within a ministry. And it will have to follow set procedures. And since there is nothing in PC's lament, or PAC's treatment of it so far, to suggest that anything will or even should be done about NLC's attitude, what's the point of the whole exercise? Surely, if NLC can fall in line somewhere else it can also do it with the PC.
Perhaps if the government sees such roadblocks as opportunities of making examples of elements that have been eating off the fat of the land for far too long, there's an outside chance that we might come out better from all this. However, to truly turn such setbacks into victories that matter in the long-term, authorities will have to be quick on the draw. Whenever something emerges that slows things down for no other reason than utter disregard for rules, it must be nipped in the bud.
This NLC example should, then, serve as a test case. The Cell should simply be asked to explain its actions and then action should be taken in light of the law. And there's no reason for this to take any longer than a few days. So it shouldn't take too long to know if NLC really needs to be reined in or not, and whether or not it will be if it does.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021