Express Tribune Editorials | July 1, 2020

Budget approval

That the federal budget has been passed by the National Assembly is no news. If there is anything that came out as news from the assembly’s budget session on Monday, it is the score line. The government managed 160 votes against the opposition’s 119 at the time of passage of clause nine of the Finance Bill 2020-21. And the same turned out to be the final score, as the opposition — having been defeated during clause-by-clause vote  did not insist for a vote at the final passage. As the exit of the four-seat BNP-M from the ruling coalition a few days back reduced its strength in the National Assembly to 180 seats, it means that as many as 20 treasury members did not vote for budget approval.

However, this 41-vote majority could have shrunk further if an eleventh-hour dinner party, thrown by Prime Minister Imran Khan, had not managed to win back several disgruntled party colleagues and allies. There are reports of senior most PTI members reaching out to a group of more than a dozen party colleagues — who had refused to attend the dinner — with assurances on behalf of the Prime Minister as regards some unfulfilled promises. Still, the number of votes secured on the budget stood 12 short of the magical mark of 172 that ensures simple majority in the 342-strong lower house and that is needed by the PM to stay on in the coveted office in case a no-confidence motion is table by the opposition.

Should this electoral equation worry the PM? Yes it should, given the poor performance of his team in almost every area — be it the economy, governance or social service delivery. The best way for the PM to keep the ruling coalition intact is to deliver, especially with regard to the economy, rather than succumbing to the fair and unfair demands of his coalition partners every now and then. Has the PM forgotten that during his cricket days, he would let his props – bat and ball – do the talking?


Foiled terror attack

It could have turned into a big tragedy if our security personnel had not sprung into timely action to overcome the four terrorists who tried to storm the Pakistan Stock Exchange building in Karachi on Monday. A sub-inspector of police and three private security guards laid down their lives, but not before the four terrorists had been downed a little farther from the main gate of the stock exchange building. The terrorists attempted to make it to the crowded hall of the bourse with the ill intent of doing something big. But what could have caused a hell lot of harm was brought under control in an operation – led by the Rangers and Sindh Police’s Rapid Response Force – that lasted only eight minutes. The biggest heroes though were the security guards at the stock exchange because if they had not held off the initial assault, we can only imagine how many of the 6,000 people inside the building would have left in body bags.

The attack was the first major terrorist incident in Karachi since the November 2018 attack on the Chinese Consulate claimed by Baloch insurgents. Reports suggest that this one was also orchestrated by the Balochistan Liberation Army, a banned terrorist outfit with ties to Indian and Afghan intelligence. Some 10 days back — on June 19 to be exact – there had been near-simultaneous attacks on Rangers officials in three different cities of Sindh. Three Rangers men were martyred in these attacks that may have been an attempt to divert attention from a bigger game plan.

The failed attack on the bourse, meanwhile, endorses intelligence reports about the presences of terrorist sleeper cells in the city. Already rumours are rife that the attack may also be linked to India’s regional goals. After all, after being thrashed by China, India knows it is in no position to directly attack its neighbour to the north. The attack targeted the financial never centre of the country, equated by the Sindh CM with the nine eleven attacks on the World Trade Centre. Conversely though, the stocks actually closed up by 0.71%, and the market was one of the best performers in Asia on the day. Kudos to our security forces who made yet another gallant contribution towards the safety and security of our country and the people.


Higher education and universities

Last week’s article that focused on a critical appraisal of higher education received a tremendous response from a broad cross-section of society besides members of academia. Commentators seemed to agree that the quality of education had deteriorated to a pathetic level. In this week’s article, I will take up other issues for appraisal.

Universities are established as autonomous statutory bodies so that they can act independently, efficiently and effectively. However, transparency and accountability are also the essentials of good governance. The preamble of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa University Act 2012 postulates to reconstitute and reorganise universities and their governance and management by ensuring accountability, transparency and giving due representation to all stakeholders in decision making, to enhance the quality of higher education. In this context I will take a university of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) as a case study.

The case study university boasts of “Quest for Excellence” as its vision, making it imperative to set a strategy for achieving the vision in the process of admission criterion, matters of recruitment and promotion, careful use of funds, adhering to mandatory provisions of law and rules and ruthlessly acting against forgery, cheating and fraud in issuance of degrees and Detail Marks Certificates (DMCs). The irony is that in most departments, composition of the the board of studies did not fulfil the mandatory statutory requirements as those were without regular faculty. Urdu, psychology, biotechnology, botany, tourism and hotel management, computer science and management sciences are some examples. Without the required faculty for launching of departments and starting BS programmes, the university had also launched MS/MPhil programmes in departments where the majority of the faculty were on visiting terms. The university did not pay any heed to the instructions of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) and launched MS/MPhil and PhD programmes without fulfilling the mandatory standards and obtaining NOC from the HEC. In many cases well connected candidates whose results of dissertations were not declared were allowed to appear in the admission test to facilitate their entry.

Sometime back the scandal of issuance of fake degrees and DMCs made headlines in the media. The syndicate of the university took cognisance of the scandal and appointed an inquiry committee. The inquiry was however hushed up. The chancellor (governor of K-P) of the university ultimately taking cognisance three years ago thundered that he would not spare anyone. He referred the matter to the Governor’s Inspection Team. The Inspection Team in its findings held guilty scores of employees including the treasurer, for having obtained office on the basis of a BBA degree issued by a fake Orient University. The process of accountability was further delayed as the chancellor, instead of taking action against the responsible officials, referred the matter to the FIA. Now ping pong is being played between the university and the FIA in the form of letters. The FIA officials were found to be so naïve that they accepted the reply of the university that the matter was with the NAB. Although, NAB had not asked the FIA to transfer the case to them, the FIA on their own sat on the inquiry. This is how accountability is being done.

The efficacy of a system depends on ruthless accountability, transparency, enforcement of law and policies. But, in the case of universities, the decisions of the syndicate, Senate and chancellor are being floated with impunity. The University Act categorically specifies that administrative positions, such as registrar, treasurer, controller of examinations, auditor and other key positions should be on a regular basis and bars appointment of teachers on these positions. The findings of the Governor’s Inspection Team into the affairs of the university highlighted the violation of the statutory provisions in respect of appointments, budget and manipulation of minutes three years ago whereupon the chancellor, with the approval of the Senate, ordered the vice chancellor to be sent on forced leave during the course of inquiry. However, the High Court stayed the order on a writ petition filed by the VC. The stay order did not, however, forbid a formal inquiry. The abuse of the process of law can be gauged from the fact that the VC completed his tenure on the strength of that stay order. After the expiry of his tenure the VC withdrew the writ petition which was never conclusively disposed of on merit. However, the order of the chancellor still holds good and the question remains what would happen to the accountability of the former VC and legality of decisions made by him during his tenure.

In another instance, one official, holding three positions as a member of a subcommittee, altered the qualifications to his own favour and after relaxation paved his own way to be appointed as the treasurer despite adverse observations made by the members of the syndicate. Severe anomalies had also been also observed in the 8th and 9th Selection Board in terms of eligibility, scrutiny, preparation of merit list, concealing facts about the merit list before the selection board in violating of the statutes. Although the issues were brought in subsequent meetings of the syndicate, appointment letters were issued by the university administration.

The upshot of the case study is that although the University Act 2012 and law and procedure under the the Act pronounce accountability, no regard is ever shown to such provisions. Barring few exceptions, the VCs, instead of making use of the autonomy in an efficient manner within the legal framework, have unfortunately turned universities into personal fiefdoms. This does not augur well for the future of higher education in Pakistan.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 1, 2020

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