Secret no more
At a stroke the Supreme Court on Tuesday removed the cloak of invisibility that has hitherto prevented the auditing of so-called ‘secret accounts’. Henceforward all expenditure from the public purse is to be made in a transparent manner and will be subject to audit. The court was giving its verdict on constitutional petitions filed by two journalists who had sought the abolition of secret funds that are alleged to have been used by successive governments to buy the loyalty – and pens – of journalists as well as others who may be termed opinion-makers. The SC was crystal clear in its judgement. Rule 37(5) of the General Financial Rules (GFR), which had been used to shelter secret funds from audit, has now been declared unconstitutional and struck down. As many as 27 ministries had secret budgets which amounted to Rs3.57 billion in FY 2012-2013 – a sum over which there was no oversight and is an obvious conduit for corrupt practice.
The SC has determined that there is a ‘right to know’ in the majority of items of expenditure, but has acknowledged that exemptions may be made – with clear caveats – where matters of state secrecy are involved. The AGP is now tasked to examine the adequacy of the accounting systems that should be attached to all – not just ‘secret’ – government expenditure. The court also commented that the rules relating to such accounting were sketchy and reliant on the good faith of those accessing the funds – hardly a recipe for probity. In future the AGP is going to be obliged to share reports with the president, parliament and provincial assemblies, a level of transparency previously unheard of. This is going to put an end to practices such as that of former prime minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf who diverted billions of rupees from sensitive projects and distributed them as he pleased with no accounting whatsoever. Funds for the Bhasha Dam project and the Higher Education Commission were raided in this way, and the chief justice also commented that anybody who came to the door of the former PM was ‘given a free hand to benefit’. Cleaning up governance in Pakistan is a mammoth task, and there will be considerable resistance from those who have played fast and loose with the public purse. This new ruling by the SC adds a window of transparency and is much to be welcomed though there must be a degree of doubt as to the efficacy of its implementation. It is now for the AGP to act promptly and transparently. We await developments.