Paramanund Soobarah

Government Audit Activities
Will a follow-up report by the Director of Audit on previous annual reports serve any useful purpose?

Not according to Mr Unyaye’s article in last week’s MT. I beg to differ

— Paramanund Soobarah

Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam described the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) as “one of the important safeguards of the financial system” (Sessional Paper No. 7 of 1957). That Committee, consisting as it does of parliamentarians of both sides of the House, and chaired by a, usually prominent, member of the Opposition, is the final arbiter on government accounts, but the Committee has no means other the Audit Report to base its work on.

While we can expect better judgment from the PAC than from the Audit, can we rest content that everything is going fine in government financial operations? I personally doubt it. In my view, if nothing further is done to improve the present system of scrutinizing and reporting on the deployment of national funds, the Director of Audit may as well cease reporting, and even wind up his department. His report is read only by a few journalists, and all that it does is to provide a weekend’s talk about some perceived financial irregularities, and is generally drowned out by other, more salacious, scandals.

The population is entitled to know how the money taken from its pockets, or borrowed in its name, by a constitutional procedure over which it has no immediate control, is utilized. Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam may well have quipped that if all procedures are followed nothing will get done. But the nation has a right to know that departures from those procedures are reasonable exceptions leading to more efficient delivery of national projects and not, as could easily happen if less than honest officials were involved, of enabling a system where public funds are being diverted into private pockets. The only constitutionally endowed body to pronounce on such departures is the Public Accounts Committee, which would be totally paralyzed without the support of Audit Department, the only party that can identify and report on cases of divergence from approved procedures.

In my experience, even the PAC’s report does not elicit more interest from the public that the Auditor’s own report. The public is largely apathetic. In the last 50 years that I have been taking an interest in governance, only once has an NGO made a determined effort to really arouse public attention and highlight wrongdoing in our national affairs. That was in 1980 when the Port Louis Diocese set up a “Commission Justice et Paix” to deliberate on the ethics of business in the nation.

Commission Justice et Paix: La Morale des Affaires

The Diocese’s Commission Justice et Paix made a thorough analysis of prevailing business practices in both the public and private sectors. After an overall review of the general business situation in Mauritius, it recalled what the sacred texts of the major religions had to say on the matter, with extracts from the Bible, the thoughts of Confucius, the Koran, the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita. It then reviewed the conditions in the various sectors of the economy such as Commerce and Transportation, Industrial Relations, Professional Ethics, and analyzed some of the causes of misbehaviour. It also reviewed the conditions in the government and other sectors, drawing attention to the distinction between legality and morality, and proposing some solutions. It published its findings in a well-presented booklet entitled La Morale des Affaires, a model of a document on the conduct of business in the country.

In a chapter headed “Des cas de détournements et de gaspillage“, the document presented specific instances of the wrongful behaviour as highlighted in a recent Audit Report, classifying them by type. For instance, at paragraph 8.5.5, under behaviour regarded as negligence, lack of coordination or absence of decision, it has the following entry:

dans l’aviation civile, des équipements ayant été achetés entre 1976 et juin 1978 au coût de 3,5 millions, n’avaient pas encore été déballés en septembre 1978. Deux autres équipements (valeur 66.000 roupies) ont été trouvés démontés et rangés dans un store; (italics mine).

This was a translation of para. 110., with some simplification, of the Audit Report for year ending 30th June 1978. The equipment concerned was an Instrument Landing System ordered (and already installed) by the Dept of Civil Aviation for landing aircraft. The Accounting Officer designated by Parliament for this item was the Director of Civil Aviation, i.e. none other than me, myself, the undersigned, Paramanund Soobarah by name. How come that I, born and raised in the strictest Bissoondoyalist tradition of the deepest saffron, for whom dereliction of duty and corruption were the ultimate sin, had come to find a place in the Thieves’ Roll of Honour? The story may throw some light on the workings of the Audit Department and the Public Accounts Committee, and will be relevant to the present discussion on the need for parallel follow-report by the Director of Audit.

* * *

When I took over the Department of Civil Aviation in in September 1971, at a time when, following our Independence, Mauritius had come to the notice of international carriers causing air traffic to rise by double digits, Plaisance Airport was listed as one of the most dangerous airports in the world. The hilly ground to the North-West (Rose-Belle to Bigara) prevented aircraft from approaching the airport from that direction. People in their forties and fifties may well remember how arriving aircraft approached in those days, coming from the Curepipe area at high level, going out further east to the sea, and returning at lower level via Rose Belle and Mare d’Albert to land at Plaisance. At the time we were also severely understaffed and poorly equipped. My attention was focused entirely on improving safety and allied technical matters. Monitoring financial matters was not a priority for me.

I had been picked from Air Traffic Control, given training in all relevant aspects of Aviation Safety (none at all in Finance) and appointed Director of Civil Aviation. I considered my involvement in Finance to be limited to certifying that certain pieces of work assigned to contractors under the applicable procedures of the Ministry of Finance had been satisfactorily completed. All other matters were dealt with by a Finance Officer and a Stores Officer, both provided by the Ministry of Finance from their own establishment; the training, competence and performance of those officers were the responsibility of the Ministry of Finance and not mine. As I understood it at the time, failures in the application of regulations could only be ascribed to the Ministry of Finance staff. With hindsight I know that this view was untenable, but at a Conference in 1978 chaired by Hon V. Ringadoo, Minister of Finance, I had the temerity to put it forward loudly to him. He had called a meeting of all Accounting Officers to introduce the new Government Auditor, Mr R. Chedumbarum Pillay. Of course the Hon Minister did not agree, and then on I had to learn to abide by the official view and to work double time poring of financial regulations and financial transactions – in addition to looking after safety matters. Shortly after that Conference, the entire Audit department descended on my department. Everything that could be checked was checked; even the runway was measured with tape. The remarks in the Diocese document “La Morale des Affaires” quoted above stem from that inspection.

I have referred to the “danger” aspect of the old Plaisance Aiport. During my time as Air Traffic Controller (1960-1970), having witnessed several near-accident situations involving landing aircraft, I took it upon myself to study all aspects relating to the operation of aircraft (their flying, navigation and landing), purchasing books and taking correspondence courses from my own funds in the process. After years of study and research, I was able to devise a procedure, based on the classical Instrument Landing System (ILS), that would permit aircraft to fly directly from Flic-en-Flac to Bigara and from there land safely at Plaisance. This finding contradicted all the official advice received from countries like UK, France, India and China and even from the International Civil Aviation Organisation, who all preferred the construction of a new runway at some safer site.

Bearing in mind the hazards met by aircraft daily and considering that the safety of passengers, crews and aircraft were my prime responsibility, within fifteen days of my appointment as Director of Civil Aviation I put my landing scheme forward to the regular airlines operating at Plaisance. I received strong support from most of them, and was able to put the scheme forward to the Prime Minister’s Office. It took four years to get government approval for it, and another three to procure, install, flight-check and commission the system. The equipment arrived in bits and pieces, giving us time to complete the ground works for it, and installation began in late 1977. It was released for public use on the 1st September 1978. From that day on, Plaisance became a quasi-normal airport as far as safety aspects were concerned.

At the time a political row was raging in the press for and against a new airport in the North. A New Airport Project Unit had been created in the Government Service, initially within the Dept. of Civil Aviation, but transferred later to the Communications Division of the Prime Minister’s Office located in the Ministry of Communications — after I had objected to the manner of allocating certain contracts for work to be performed at the New Airport site. The Audit Report that had found the ILS still crated in September 1978 also passed severe strictures on events at the New Airport Site.

Later that month (September 1978) I was summoned to appear before the Public Accounts Committee, whose members seemed to be already aware of the fact that the ILS had been installed, and it might have implications for the New Airport projected for the North. I refused to be drawn into the debate on the pros and cons of that project, deeming it to be a political matter. The important point here is that the installation of the equipment and its use by aircraft is recorded in the PAC report (at para. 107). The new Director of Audit, Mr Pillay, obviously did not read the previous year’s PAC report before writing his own some time in 1979. All the procedures and safeguards concerning the preparation and publication of Audit reports mentioned in Mr Unyaye’s article were strictly adhered to, and explanations on all points raised had been forwarded. But bureaucratic and postal delays stemming from having to route all Audit correspondence through the Ministry of Communications prevented those explanations from arriving on time. On seeing the final version of his proposed report text, I called up Mr Pillay. Too late, he said; the report is out.

Too late perhaps, I thought, but not too bad: what was to stop him from adding a rider to the effect a couple of lines should be disregarded. At a meeting on the subject at the Ministry of Communications, he would not budge; I left dissatisfied, but the meeting went on, as there were other important issues in the same Audit Report that adversely affected the Ministry of Communications, including particularly some comments on the New Airport Project for which the Ministry was responsible. See you all at the PAC, I thought. However, the department, indeed the whole Ministry of Communications, was never summoned to the PAC hearings for the 1979 session. One has to wonder whether PAC members actually read the Audit report relating to their sittings.

Therefore, based on my experience, I fully support the Director of Audit’s idea of issuing a follow-up report on previous regular reports issued by him or his predecessor. That would sure improve the level of interest taken by all concerned in the matters raised, whether done so rightly or wrongly.

I also strongly support his idea of commenting on the good work done by civil servants. Any unbiased person will, I am sure, judge the work I did, uninvited by anybody inside or outside the government service, and just out of my own sense of responsibility for the safety of the members of the public I served, favourably. The economic benefits of the work were also enormous as, at a time of dire financial straights, it enabled the MMM government of 1982 to postpone the New Airport Project.

Go right ahead, Mr Auditor!

Paramanund Soobarah

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