The Audit Report that is released every year comes with a measure of predictability. This refers to the to the long list of irregularities that the Director of Audit signals in his examination of various expenses incurred by the Government for the proper running of its different services and infrastructural projects undertaken in different sectors. It has been the same story through successive governments down the years: delays in completion of projects to substantial project cost overruns, irregularities in procurement procedures and award of contracts; favouritism of various kinds in various sectors and at different levels to political protégés, etc.
The brief of the Director of Audit is to make observations and comments on the management of public funds in the country each year. The objective is clearly to give wake-up calls to the government of the day and induce it to take the remedial measures required so as to improve the efficient financial management in the public sector – hoping that the shortcomings pointed out and that result in waste and inefficiency at the level of certain concerned departments will be promptly addressed. It is not only the scale of financial adjustment that catches attention for the sloppiness with which different ministries have engaged with work allocations and questionable procurement exercises, which come at a high cost to the taxpayer. The aim is to minimize such occurrences which smack of inefficiency and are not in accord with good governance.
Judging from what the opposition parties and the press have been drawing attention to these last few weeks in relation to the procurement of pharmaceutical and related products prior to and during the confinement period, it looks like the next Audit Report for the current financial year will again make for depressing – and even shocking – reading. A document recently tabled by the Ministry of Health which gives a list of goods purchased under Budget 2019/2020 in connection with Covid-19 reveals the supply of these various goods to the health authorities, via the State Trading Corporation, which has cost the Exchequer some Rs 1.5 billion during a three-month period, beginning from March and up to June 2020. We thus learn of business houses unregistered with the Registrar of Companies, hardware stores, as well as some companies in this pharmaceutical sector having supplied goods amounting to hundreds of millions of rupees which, in some instances, would have been facilitated through the instrument of Emergency Procurement. What is striking are the names of protégés known for their closeness to the political heavyweights.
Given the scale of this rot in the system, the opposition has called for the institution for a commission of inquiry into these procurements, as it did in the case of St Louis Gate. And, once again, it is very unlikely that the Government will accede to that request, preferring to commit the inquiry, if any, to ICAC. Much has been aired about ICAC and we can only reiterate with other observers what has come to be seen as the obvious, namely ICAC’s inability to unravel the big cases that have been confided to it. It has missed several opportunities to prove itself and turn around its poor image and regain some credibility. One more case to its charge will only burden it further and most likely spread thin its resources so that it may be a foregone conclusion what the outcome is going to be.
However, the larger issue here goes beyond ICAC. It is that the virus of favouritism and corruption that seems to have so infiltrated our polity that it appears as the new normal way of proceeding in running the affairs of the country. We are already on blacklists and our global business sector is labouring under the dark clouds of loss of investor confidence, and the country’s loss of credibility globally.
Unless there is a demonstrable resolve to frontally confront the worms crawling in the woodwork of governance, the continuing slide downwards seems inevitable.
* Published in print edition on 10 July 2020