Govt steps lack transparency: CJ

-Covid-19 crisis suo motu
-Zakat distribution mechanism comes under the scrutiny

By Shakeel Ahmed

ISLAMABAD: Chief Justice of Pakistan Gulzar Ahmed on Monday lamented the lack of “transparency” in the steps the government has taken to combat the coronavirus pandemic so far.
The observation was made during a hearing of a suo motu case pertaining to the federal and provincial governments’ response to the Covid-19 crisis. The case is being heard by a five-member bench headed by the chief justice.
In today’s hearing, the top court examined a report submitted by the federal government on measures taken to tackle the crisis.
“All governments (federal and provincial) are spending money for relief [but] there is no transparency to be seen. There is no transparency in any of the steps [taken],” the chief justice said.
Justice Umar Ata Bandial, who is also part of the bench, noted that the Centre had doled out more than Rs9 billion to provinces and added: “Monitoring should be done of what the provinces are doing with the money.”
“Monitoring does not affect provincial autonomy. Monitoring is also a form of an audit,” Justice Bandial said. The chief justice remarked that the Zakat and charity money given to the government by the people “is not for TA & DA (travelling allowance and dearness allowance) or foreign tours”. “Zakat money cannot be used for office expenses. How can charity money be used to give salaries of officials?” Justice Gulzar said. The government should give salaries to officials, the chief justice said, adding that the director general of the Baitul Mal was also receiving his salary from the Zakat fund.
Justice Bandial said that according to the report submitted, the government had collected more than Rs9 billion in Zakat but “nothing has been mentioned about how the money is passed on to the deserving people”.
The chief justice also inquired about quarantine facilities provided by the government and said that people who were isolated in these centres were being charged. “Those who cannot pay should be kept in quarantine centres free of charge.”
In response to a question, Health Secretary Tanveer Ahmed Qureshi — who appeared before the court today — said that there were 16 quarantine centres in Islamabad, which included hotels, Haji Camp, an OGDCL building and the Pak-China Centre.
“On what basis were hotels chosen to quarantine people? Why weren’t all hotels given a chance to become quarantine centres?” he asked, adding that conditions in Islamabad’s Haji Camp quarantine centre were “inhumane”.
Qureshi told the court that people who arrived from other countries were kept in quarantine centres for 24 hours.
“People take one Panadol tablet and go through screening undetected [for symptoms],” the chief justice regretted. Qureshi explained that this was the reason behind keeping passengers in quarantine centres for 24 hours.
The chief justice asked Qureshi if he had visited Haji Camp, to which the latter replied in the negative but added that the additional health secretary had visited the centre.
“Visit Haji Camp, OGDCL building and Pak-China Centre yourself today,” Justice Gulzar told Qureshi. “Make sure that food and all basic facilities are being provided in quarantine centres.”
“I will pay a visit today and ensure that all facilities are being provided,” Qureshi assured the court.
Islamabad advocate general informed the court that another quarantine centre was being made over 32 kanals in Chak Shehzad.
“Instead of making quarantine centres, why aren’t [buildings] of schools and colleges being used [for that purpose]?” Justice Qazi Muhammad Amin Ahmed, who is also part of the bench, asked and added: “Why is money being spent on building new quarantine centres?” “The suggestion to [use buildings of] schools is a good one, we will consider it,” Attorney General Khalid Jawed Khan said.
“Government is spending a lot of money but it is not clear what is happening,” the top judge remarked and added: “Staying in the quarantine centre at Taftan was a frightening dream.”
“[Who knows] how the money given by the public and other countries is being spent. Billions of rupees have been spent and there are only 5,000 patients.” Justice Gulzar complained that none of the provinces or departments had submitted reports “based on transparency”.
Punjab advocate general told the court that the provincial government was distributing relief money among people whose income had been affected due to the lockdown, through EasyPaisa. Justice Gulzar pointed out that the details of the money spent were not mentioned in the report.
The bench grilled the Sindh advocate general over details of the money spent on ration bags which were distributed among the lower-income people.
Sindh AG Salman Talibuddin informed the court that the provincial government had distributed Rs569 million from the Zakat fund among more than 94,000 people. When asked who had received the money, the AG responded: “The same people who receive Zakat every year were given the money.”
The court wondered how the Sindh government distributed ration bags worth Rs1 billion without anyone knowing. “Sindh government hands out pictures to media for the smallest things,” the chief justice said.
“Pictures are not being taken because [the government] does not want to do politics over coronavirus,” Talibuddin said and added that the Sindh government has been distributing ration bags since March 30. In response to a question, the AG said that the data of houses of lower-income people who qualified to receive Zakat was provided by Union Committees.
“It pains us that fingers are pointed at our province,” said Justice Sajjad Ali Shah, who is part of the bench. “Sir people who talk will continue to talk,” Talibuddin answered.
While explaining the rationale behind sealing 11 UCs in Karachi, Sindh AG said that by April 12, 234 cases had been detected from the sealed areas, which collectively house more than 600,000 people. The court welcomed the decision to reopen some industries but told the government to ensure that standard operating procedures were being followed. Balochistan government also presented a report on quarantine centres for people coming from Iran and relief provided to people.
The bench paid tribute to medical professionals and sanitary staff and instructed the provincial governments to ensure their well-being.
The hearing was adjourned for two weeks. Last week, the five-member bench had assailed the federal and provincial governments for not demonstrating a clear vision to deal with the coronavirus crisis.
The chief justice had deplored that the government was doing nothing except for holding meetings and issuing statements and closing down all premises without realising its impact.
“How many people are dying of Covid-19 than other diseases,” the chief justice had asked, observing that people were starving but a huge amount of money was being spent on advisers and assistants. He had also regretted that there was a lot of overlapping as the ministers, special assistants and advisers were doing the same thing.
The top judge had also taken note of Sindh government’s decision to seal 11 UCs in Karachi as part of measures taken to curb the spread of the disease and questioned its eligibility to deal with the situation.
A detailed report in this regard was submitted in the top court by the Sindh government on Saturday, which highlighted that after a 14-day period during which these UCs remain sealed off, a fresh round of screening would be undertaken in these areas. Supreme Court has sought opinion from Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) and Mufti Taqi Usmani regarding the payment of salaries of the Baitul Maal staff from the zakat fund. During the suo motu hearing of the coronavirus case on Monday, Chief Justice of Pakistan Gulzar Ahmed asked CII to give an opinion if the zakat fund could be used by Baitul Maal for office expenditures. The CJP then further directed Baitul Maal to submit a report on the distribution of zakat funds.
The chief justice inquired where the zakat funds were being spent as no report had been submitted in court by the Baitul Maal department.
Asking about the mechanism of disbursement of the country’s Rs9 billion Zakat fund, the chief justice, noting that the real issue was of transparency, said the funds should not be used on expenses of government officials.
He added that the provincial governments had submitted records of the amount they have distributed, however, details of how the funds were spent had not been submitted and asked all the provinces and ICT to submit a report on the disbursement of funds during the next hearing.
Justice Umar Ata Bandial, a member of the larger bench, observed that while the court has been informed that the federal government collects Rs9 billion in Zakat, which is later shared with provinces, details of disbursement have not been provided. Justice Bandial further said that the federal government should conduct an audit of the fund as it will not affect provincial autonomy.
The chief justice also asked secretary health regarding the quarantine centres set up in Islamabad. Explaining the measures taken by the government in the federal capital, the secretary stated that so far 16 quarantine centres have been set up in various hotels, Haji Camp, ODGCL building and the Pak-China Friendship Center.
Referring to complaints of those being kept in the quarantine centres, the chief justice asked the health secretary if he had visited the facilities.
To this, the secretary health said that he had not personally visited the centrss but the additional secretary had himself monitored the arrangements.
The CJP directed secretary health to visit all the quarantine centres across Islamabad to examine the facilities being provided to the Covid-19 patients.
Hearing of the case was adjourned for two weeks.