Wednesday, January 3, 2018

What’s Behind Iran’s Protests?

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Pakistan - #MashalKhan - A conspiracy of fear

If the cutting short of a promising life, such as Mashal Khan’s, has any lesson to be remembered in 2018 and beyond, it is the urgency of defeating the conspiracy of silence.
No killing of a blasphemy accused has gone uncensured by at least a few public-spirited citizens but the outrage caused by the extraordinarily brutal murder of Mashal Khan in the hostel of Abdul Wali Khan University, Mardan, in April 2017 was perhaps unprecedented.
The reasons for expression of public fury on a vast scale were not far to seek. The young student was killed in a most brutal fashion and his corpse was dragged across a considerable distance and desecrated otherwise too. A large number of people, including university staff, were reported to have approvingly, or at least quietly, watched the gory spectacle. An important cause of the people’s distress was the fact that complaints of blasphemy are quite infrequent in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Pakhtun society, though deeply religious, values its tradition of tolerance.
The government could not look at the incident as another heinous crime. The federal minister for religious affairs vowed not to put up with abuse of the blasphemy law. There was reason to believe that the societal reaction stemmed not only from the horrible nature of the crime but also from shame and dismay at the high level of intolerance the incident had revealed. Much anger was poured out in newspaper columns.
Until the Islamic scholars and the people at large grow out of the fear of discussing the various interpretations of the sayings about the offence of blasphemy, or any other matter, including the nature of the national polity, no public movement for removing flaws in the system of justice will succeed.
But the wave of emotional fury subsided shortly afterwards. It did not lead to any meaningful debate on the long-term consequences of keeping a closed mind on the offence of blasphemy, the law about it and the trial procedure. Instead, attempts were made to minimise the gravity of the incident. For instance, somebody had the temerity to suggest that Mashal had chosen the path to self-annihilation in order to gain public attention. (Remember the Musharraf bloomer about women’s making false allegations of rape for getting publicity? Obviously, there is no shortage of diseased minds.)
The mass revulsion to the cold-blooded murder of Mashal Khan and his large-hearted father’s plea to ensure that no one else could be lynched like him did not generate a protest movement of the kind that can cause changes not only in laws but also in the people’s mindset. This was mainly due to the success of the orthodoxy in imposing a blanket ban on any discussion on the subject of blasphemy and the related law and procedure.
All attempts to change the procedure to protect innocent victims of false accusation made or intended by Benazir Bhutto, Muhammad Nawaz Sharif and Pervez Musharraf were thwarted by the conservative clergy. Nothing has succeeded in Pakistan like the conspiracy to bar discussion on offences relating to religion.
As a result, the people have been frightened into surrendering their right and duty both to apply their minds to a host of matters related to the offence of blasphemy, such as the following:
A large body of ulema maintains that a non-Muslim cannot be tried and punished for blasphemy with death.
While hearing the plea for making death penalty mandatory, the Federal Shariat Court (FSC) invited seven fuqaha (Islamic jurisconsults) for advice and four of them declared that a Muslim accused could be forgiven if he repented, while a fifth faqih said a lesser punishment than death could be awarded. Ibn-Taymiyyah, on whom the FSC heavily relied, began his treatise on blasphemy by acknowledging that most of the ulema did not consider death sentence as the punishment for blasphemy. Thus, the claim to unanimity on the penalty for blasphemy is untenable.
The argument that a surge in blasphemy cases was witnessed after the addition of the blasphemy provision (sec 295-C) to the Penal Code is supported by statistics. Between 1948 and 1979 only 11 blasphemy related cases were reported. The number fell to 3 during 1979-1986. After the addition of 295-C the number of cases rose to 44 during 1987-1999.
The argument that the blasphemy law has become an instrument for the persecution not only of non-Muslims but also of rival Muslim sects is borne out by the fact that over the last few years the accused have included more Muslims than non-Muslims. The scope of blasphemy has been extended to include sectarian differences over interpretation of Islamic values and norms.
The Supreme Court observed, while confirming the death sentence awarded to Malik Mumtaz Qadri, that “The majority of blasphemy cases are based on false accusations stemming from property issues or other personal or family vendettas.” In the same case the court ruled that criticism of the blasphemy law does not amount to blasphemy, as argued by some religious agitators.
Earlier, the debate on the bill to insert 295-C into the Penal Code was cut short on the ground that there was no room for discussion on the subject.
The original text of Sec 295-C had provided for death or life imprisonment for blasphemy on the Holy Prophet (PBUH). The FSC struck down the alternative to death penalty. When the need to amend the text came up before the National Assembly its standing committee observed that the language of the provision was vague and it suggested ascertainment of what the practice in other Muslim countries was. This recommendation was ignored and the bill aiming at deletion of the alternative punishment from the text was passed, as it was considered necessary to prorogue the assembly session. The officials are so afraid of touching the relevant law that they have apparently avoided tabling in the Senate the bill approved by the National Assembly.
As a result of treating the blasphemy law as a no-touch subject, the emphasis on intent as an essential ground for prosecution for any offence in Islam continues to be ignored. Thus, until the Islamic scholars and the people at large grow out of the fear of discussing the various interpretations of the sayings about the offence of blasphemy, or any other matter, including the nature of the national polity, no public movement for removing flaws in the system of justice will succeed.
If the cutting short of a promising life, such as Mashal Khan’s, has any lesson to be remembered in 2018 and beyond, it is the urgency of defeating the conspiracy of silence in a matter of life and death.

Pakistan - PTI govt’s another mega scandal: Forest Dept’s land in Malam Jabba leased out illegally

An illegal lease of 275 acres of Forest Department land in Malam Jabba has emerged as a mega scandal during the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and proving to be a headache for it.
According to official record and sources, political personalities and the bureaucracy connived to lease out Forests Department’s protected land to a private company, Samson, for 33 years, without caring for rules and regulations, for construction of Chairlift and skiing resort.
Under the terms of reference (ToRs), only five acres of land was to be leased for construction of a hotel and 12 acres for the chairlift project. Government officials also leased 258 acres of land in sheer violation of Forest Ordinance 2002, though the forest lands could not be brought into any other use under the law. The chief minister relaxed the laws allowing lease of land for only 15 years, and extended the period to 33 years.
KP Tourism Corporation Managing Director Mushtaq Khan admitted that a mistake was committed regarding the lease period, saying that the agreement was being reviewed and the lease period being limited to 17 years. However, he failed to give any satisfactory reply regarding signing of the illegal agreement.
According to details, the KP government decided to construct a hotel at Malam Jabba (Swat) on February 27, 2014. Under the government ToRs, a five-star hotel was to be constructed on five acres of land, and under the BOT (build, operate & transfer) terms and conditions, the owners of the hotel was to get access to 270 acres of the Forest Department lands. The Board of Investment & Trade (BoIT) released an advertisement on March 3, 2014, asking companies to submit the expression of interest (EoI) in the project. The interested parties were asked to submit proposals under BOT terms and conditions. The date for submission of proposals was fixed March 31, 2014, which was later extended till April 10, 2014.
Seven companies submitted the EoI letters, including Waqas Traders Islamabad, Zafarullah Khan Peshawar, Trade Source Lahore, Samson Group of Companies Lahore, SMP Islamabad, Parks Pakistan Lahore, and Test Enterprises Lahore. A committee was formed under ex-additional chief secretary Khalid Pervaiz to finalise details of the lease agreement. Other members of the committee were: Secretary Finance, Secretary Tourism, Chairman SDA, MD Tourism Corporation, Director General Galyat Development Authority, and Chief Executive Officer BoIT.
The incumbent chief secretary, Azam Khan, was then serving as secretary Tourism. The committee constituted a sub-committee under MD Tourism Corporation Mushtaq Khan to look into all proposals submitted by the private firms and send them for approval of the committee.
As the committee had not set any criteria for selection of the company, which made the entire process suspicious. The sub-committee short-listed three companies on the basis of technical assessment and gave Parks Pakistan 76.5 points, SMP Islamabad 63 and Samson Group of Companies 60.5 points. However, when the financial details of the companies were taken into account, Samson Group was declared number one with 72.35 points.
Interestingly, Samson deposited Rs6 million with the application on April 8, and then deposited Rs12 million on May 15, after lapse of 35 days of the deadline. However, the sub-committee accepted it and gave final approval on May 26, 2014.
Under the rules, decision about the final bidder had to be made on the first bidding. On Aug 12, 2014, secretary tourism gave a briefing on the bidding process to a meeting held with Additional Chief Secretary Khalid Pervaiz in the chair. The chair asked MD Tourism Mushtaq Khan who was the legal expert to look into details of the draft agreement. The MD replied that legal expert of the department gave approval for it. According to documents available with the reporter, Law Secretary Muhammad Arifain objected to lease period of 33 years, saying lease period should be 15 years under the law and it could be extended maximum by another 15 years. However, Chief Minister Pervaiz Khattak relaxed the rules and extended the lease period to 33 years. A written agreement was signed between the KP government and Samson company.
The PTI-led KP government violated all laws and leased out 275 acres of Forest Department land, instead of five acres, to the Samson company on Sept 24, 2014. Under clause 16 of the agreement, the provincial government is bound to provide following facilities to the company:-
A. The government would provide 275-acre land to the company for 33 years lease period, which is extendable by 20 years more. On five acres of land, a hotel would be constructed and on 270 acres, skiing and chairlift would be constructed.
B. The government would help get no objection certificates (NOC) from all departments concerned.
C. The government would construct a road for the company.
D. The government would provide electricity facility to the company’s constructions and installations.
Under the agreement, the hotel would be constructed in two years and remaining constructions would be completed in three years. The chairlift will also be installed in two years.
On April 15, 2015, former chairman of the Ehtesab Commission, General (retd) Hamid Khan, expressed his serious reservations over the agreement and asked the government to review it. The CM Inspection Team had also termed the agreement illegal and launched investigation into it. However, nothing came out as the Ehtesab Commission has become redundant, while the CM Inspection Team’s report has been thrown into dustbin.
General (retd) Hamid Khan had raised objections in his letter, IW/EC/MalamJabba/ 01, on April 15, 2015, saying the bidding process was suspicious. The Samson company submitted the amount late and it has no experience in hotel industry. The letter said that the lease contract was given to a favourite company.
Similar suspicions were expressed by the CM Inspection Team head in a letter (PIT/2015/ INSP/27/43-0541) on February 26, 2016.
According to official documents, three other departments – Environment, Wildlife, and Forests – also objected to the project. However, the Tourism Department neither consulted these departments before leasing out the land nor paid any heed to their objections later on.
The PTI-led government has violated the Forest Ordinance 2002 in this agreement. Section 105(1) of the ordinance says that the forest lands could not be brought into use any other purpose except for growing of forests or related activities.
After the Malam Jabba lease agreement was made public in 2015, the Forest Department stopped Samson company from carrying out any construction works on 270-acre protected lands. The company filed a writ petition, No P-340, in the Peshawar High Court on Jan 19, 2016, and made respondents seven KP government departments.
The petition requested the court to bar the Forest secretary and district forest officer from interfering in construction works on 275 acres of land, leased out to the company, as it is a violation of the agreement reached with the provincial government. The company said it had spent billions of rupees on construction work of the hotels and installation of chairlift, and stopping them from work could cost them heavily.
On Feb 15, 2017, the company informed the court that all reservations of the government departments were removed in a meeting on Dec 13, 2016, therefore the petition should be disposed of. On the same date, the PHC disposed of the petition.
According to sources, NAB too has taken notice of the situation, and the provincial government is now cleverly trying to amend the lease agreement to avoid accountability, for which a summary has been sent to the chief minister.
Although Imran Khan talks about a corruption-free Pakistan, he remained aloof to this mega scandal and didn’t take action even after the media broke the news.
The Forest Department officials, on the condition of not being named, said the hotel owners were stopped from work in the protected area. The Tourism Department couldn’t lease out the forest land, but they were not in a position to say anything more on the topic, they added.
The officials, on repeated questions, said the forest land could not be used for any other purpose. When contacted, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Tourism Corporation MD Mushtaq Khan said the agreement was signed to promote tourism by constructing a four or five-star hotel despite the fact that Malam Jabba already had a PTDC hotel and chairlift.
He admitted that the lease deal was wrong as the forest land could not be leased out. They, however, were revisiting the document through which five and 12 acres of land would be given for the hotel and chairlift respectively, while the right to access was to be given to the company owner in the remaining area, Mushtaq added.
When asked about the people responsible for the illegal agreement, he said he was the sub-committee chairman while the committee, headed by the chief secretary, had given the approval.
Mushtaq said the agreement could be reviewed as the company had not constructed any structure on the forest land. Meanwhile, the CEO of Parks, Malik Khalid Khan, confirmed that the Samson Group had been rewarded without having the required expertise and ability. The Samson Group had never installed a chairlift and only his company had the expertise in Pakistan, he added.
According to Malik, the ToRs made it mandatory that the companies having international standard of developed countries like the US, Switzerland and Italy could install the chairlifts. But the Samson Group opted for a substandard and cheap Chinese product. He said the objections he raised against the company on technical basis were rejected.

Why a clean drinking water project in Punjab is going nowhere

Water sparkles at a luxury golf club and water resort just off Multan Road. The environment inside its premises is rarefied — meticulously manicured lawns, well-maintained golf greens and artificial sandpits are lined by diligently designed tree plantations. Water sport facilities are interspersed over a large area. The clear blue sky above the resort and the crystal clear water raining down from what its management calls a “splash zone” belie its surroundings. It is located amid one of the most heavily industrialised – and also highly polluted – tracts of land near Lahore. Factories and plants of all types emit poisonous smoke and spew dangerous waste right around the bucolic atmosphere of the resort. Groundwater in the area is poisonous, the land is singed with chemicals and the air noxious with hazardous fumes.

Located about 36 kilometres south of Lahore’s Thokar Niaz Beg flyover, this area was agricultural country before industry arrived here in the 1990s. Rice, vegetable, wheat, sugarcane and many other crops grew here in abundance. Soon after industrial units started draining their waste water into these fertile lands, they started losing their virility and vigour. The worse was yet to come.
Lahore-based Urdu daily Khabrain reported in 1998 that a large number of children studying in Kulalanwala village in this area were developing bone deformities. Most people were initially incredulous due to the sensational way the newspaper had covered the story but everyone was shocked when similar stories appeared in other and better reputed newspapers.
Basharat Ali, a young man in his late twenties, lives in Kot Asadullah, a village adjoining Kulalanwala. He was one of the hundreds of children whose cases were reported in the 1990s. All of them had developed limp legs, rotten teeth and skewed arms. Even after growing up, their ailments did not go away. Ali lurches both forward and sideways as he walks. “Whether old or young, we all have pain in our joints,” he says. “We experience difficulties in getting up and sitting down. A lot of people have problems with their teeth,” he adds.
Immediately after the discovery of widespread bone and joint diseases in the area, many government teams, non-government agencies and journalists descended on Kulalanwala and Kot Asadullah. Some started taking soil and water samples for testing, others began collecting personal narratives of misery and suffering, and a third group set up camps to provide whatever medical services they could offer through their makeshift facilities. The Punjab government – headed by incumbent Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif back then too – transported scores of children to various government hospitals in Lahore for corrective surgeries and other treatments. Ali considers himself lucky for being one of those children.

How long must the residents of Kulalanwala and Kot Asadullah wait for this departmental musical chairs to end?

Water and soil tests later revealed that levels of arsenic, fluoride and various other metals and minerals, which are injurious to human health, were much higher than is medically permissible in the drinking water available to residents of Kulalanwala, Kot Asadullah and other villages in the area. The revelation prompted the provincial administration to promise that water filtration plants will be set up in the two villages without any delay.
A young girl outside the Human Necessity Foundation’s water filtration plant in Kulalanwala village
A young girl outside the Human Necessity Foundation’s water filtration plant in Kulalanwala village
Instead, the issue soon shifted to the inside pages of newspapers. The provincial government’s attention was also diverted towards the myriad other problems it was facing, including threats to its own existence, which came to an end in October 1999 when Pervez Musharraf’s military regime took over. Approximately twenty years have passed since the problem of poisonous water first surfaced in the twin villages and they still do not have a functional water filtration plant. “The situation has not really improved,” says Ali.
Weak, hobbling figures emerge from a thick blanket of smog – a toxic mixture of early winter fog, industrial and agricultural smoke and general environmental pollution – in Kulalanwala. They limp to their destinations on a recent November morning. Most of them work in nearby factories. Others have office jobs or small shops and businesses to run. Agriculture has all but died in and around the village. Some local residents have sold their farms to the water and golf resort, others have given it to factories in exchange for money even when they blame industrialisation for poisoning their water and environment.
“People have to live with their pain,” says Ali. This, in spite of the fact that stories of their medical problems have been resurfacing — though not as prominently as they did when their plight was first discovered by newspapers. In 2000, many cases of bone and joint deformities were found among residents of Shamke Bhattian, a village just 15 kilometres outside Lahore on the road leading to Multan. Ali’s father decided that he needed to attract the media’s attention to his village again. He contacted a local reporter who filed a small news report that appeared in an Urdu newspaper along with a picture of Ali. It is the only picture he has of himself from those days. He looks shrivelled and crumpled in it.
After the issue made headlines again, Lieutenant General (retd) Muhammad Safdar, then governor of Punjab, visited the area and promised setting up a water filtration plant in Kot Asadullah. The plant was set up in less than a year but it stopped working soon afterwards. Its sad remains now lie all shattered. Another plant was built in Kulalanwala months before the 2013 general elections. It was inaugurated by Rana Muhammad Iqbal, speaker of the Punjab Assembly. It remained functional for a brief period before starting to fall apart due to oversight and lack of maintenance. It now stands abandoned and deserted in the middle of the village.
Earlier this year, Nasir Iqbal, a senior officer of the Punjab Housing, Urban Development and Public Health Engineering Department in Kasur district – to which Kulalanwala and Kot Asadullah belong – visited the two villages and told locals that the provincial government’s Khadim-e-Punjab Saaf Pani (clean water) Programme would soon set up a water filtration plant for them, using the most advanced technology. He promised to a local politician that the plant will be capable of separating all the dangerous minerals, metals, bacteria and pathogens from the water that would be pumped from the ground and supplied to people at a central location. That promise is yet to materialise. “If you look around, nothing has really improved after 2000,” says Ali. If anything, the problem of industrial effluents and residential sewage stagnating around the villages has become more pronounced than ever before.
Some change has lately arrived though — and from an entirely unexpected source. A charity, Human Necessity Foundation, opened a solar-powered, state-of-the-art water filtration plant in Kulalanwala, to honour the deceased singer-turned-preacher Junaid Jamshed, in February 2017. Yet, many local residents have not given up their earlier routine. They still place large plastic jerrycans on the street in front of their doors, waiting for the delivery of drinkable water to arrive on motorcycle rickshaws from the nearby town of Manga Mandi. Sometimes their water supply arrives from as far as Lahore.
Before Shehbaz Sharif resumed his job as Punjab’s chief minister in 2008, the province was receiving funds under a drinking water supply project financed by the federal government through money provided by the World Bank. Its executing agency was the Punjab Housing, Urban Development and Public Health Engineering Department. For the next five years, a large number of filtration plants were set up across the province by the department — covering 10 to 12 per cent of Punjab’s population. Most, if not all, of these plants started becoming dysfunctional due to lack of an efficient mechanism to maintain them regularly and keep them operational in a cost-effective way. Many of them went out of service because the government could not pay for the import of replacement filter membranes as regularly as the plants needed. In other cases, the electricity bill to keep them running ran too high to be affordable by a provincial administration that badly needed money for other projects such as a metro bus service for Lahore. Bad engineering, faulty construction and low-quality construction material also contributed to reducing their lifespan.
When Shehbaz Sharif started his third stint as chief minister in 2013, he was already thinking of something else. Addressing a conference on water issues that year, he announced that he would introduce corporate-type structures to deliver civic services – including clean drinking water – in a manner more efficient and more cost-effective than what the government departments could manage with their tedious, archaic rules and insufficiently trained human resources. He also promised that the entire province, under his charge, would get access to clean drinking water by the end of June 2015.
Within a year, Punjab Saaf Pani Company came into existence — like dozens of other companies in other sectors. Registered under Section 42 of the 1984 Companies Ordinance as a non-profit corporate entity wholly owned by the government of Punjab, it is to be run – at least in theory – by a chief executive officer (CEO) selected from the private sector by the chief minister on the basis of his or her management experience in the water sector. It is also to be overseen by an independent board of directors, mostly chosen from the private sector — again by the chief minister.
The company is not required to follow lengthy government rules and regulations to have its projects approved and executed — at least that is what its foundational rationale is. All it needs is a project proposal, vetted and endorsed by its board of directors and approved directly by the chief minister without having to go through the usual departmental route. The funds for execution too come from what in official terminology is called “block” allocation — vast amounts of money at the discretion of the provincial chief executive. Centralisation of power in the hands of the chief minister has been built into the company’s very structure. Its ostensible objective has been to save the working of the company from official red tape and allow for quick decisions.
Yet, this power has not always functioned the way it was supposed to. Its first manifestation has been seen in the appointment of the company’s CEOs. Four of them have come and gone in about three years and all of them belonged to the same provincial bureaucracy blamed for being inefficient and laggard, rather than from the private sector. Its second manifestation has been even more problematic: the design, scope, timelines and financial parameters of a project envisioned by the company have changed so frequently that its ultimate shape is way off its original conception. In its third, and perhaps most worrying manifestation, the differences between the chief minister’s own thinking and that of the various CEOs of the company have often led to leakage of funds and massive delays in getting things done.
Back to square one.
Shehbaz Sharif was chairing a meeting on July 2, 2015 at his Model Town office in Lahore. Major figures in the Punjab government were among the participants. These included provincial finance minister Dr Aisha Ghaus Pasha, who was also the chairperson of Punjab Saaf Pani Company, Hamza Shahbaz, the chief minister’s own son who is a member of the National Assembly besides being the head of the Public Affairs Unit tasked with being the Punjab government’s internal watchdog, and a large number of advisers and department secretaries.
The outgoing CEO of Punjab Saaf Pani Company, Farasat Iqbal, informed participants of the meeting that 135 schemes for the provision of clean drinking water – as a pilot project – had been shortlisted for “rehabilitation in Bahawalpur region” at a cost of 896 million rupees. The contract for these schemes was already awarded to KSB, a Lahore-based firm that makes water pumps, after competitive local bidding. The main objective of the project was to revive water filtration and supply schemes in four tehsils – Hasilpur, Minchinabad, Khanpur and Lodhran – of Bahawalpur division. They were set up during the Musharraf era but had become defunct.
The chief minister, as per the official minutes of the meeting, “desired that high-quality third-party international consultancy should be hired to validate” that all the payments made to the project contractor are done on the basis of completed work. He also “desired” that no “contract would be awarded” without first showing him the bid evaluation process for the finalisation of the contractor and seeking his approval for the same.
Shehbaz Sharif’s desire to appoint third-party validation consultants was his intervention in the design of the project. His desire to have the final say on the bidding process and the award of the contract was his interference with its execution. The impact of his desires was twofold: what Punjab Saaf Pani Company had envisioned as a simple project of setting up water filtration plants (based on imported membranes) soon changed into a complex design requiring larger amounts of money and an even greater amount of time.

Every single CEO of the company left it in ignominy — starting from Waseem Mukhtar, who headed it when it was still in the process of being corporatised.

The chief minister also insisted that the project be carried out in, what in government jargon is called, EPC mode. The contractors operating in this mode do not need to adhere to a preconceived standard design. They can devise their own engineering, planning and construction strategies for each part of the project, depending on the terrain, weather and other social and physical circumstances of the project sites. These variations more often than not result in variations in expenditure too and could easily lead to escalation in the cost of the project.
It was around the time of the same meeting that Farasat Iqbal was replaced by Waseem Ajmal as the CEO of Punjab Saaf Pani Company. The new boss was also present at the meeting.
After he took over, he changed the design of the project. Instead of rehabilitating the old schemes, he proposed that the company set up a tube well and a filtration plant along the bank of a canal at a location central to a cluster of 12-15 villages; filtered water would be piped to a designated point in each village where all the local residents could access it easily. The villagers would pay minimal delivery charges while the government would bear the cost of running the tube well and maintaining the filtration plant, which was to use local technology since one of the most cited reasons for the failure of earlier filtration plants was the use of expensive imported filtration membranes in them. The company also envisaged that all water supply schemes would follow a standard design and there would be no major variations for each scheme. The chief minister was not in favour of any of this.
By the time KSB started working on the project, its entire technical and financial design had changed. The company was required to set up solar-powered reverse osmosis and ultrafiltration plants for the treatment of brackish water in four tehsils of Bahawalpur division. Rather than catering to a cluster, each plant was to be based in a specific village. The estimate of the total cost of the project had escalated to 1.13 billion rupees by the time KSB began working on it.
Punjab Saaf Pani Company issued an advertisement on April 1, 2015 to invite foreign and local companies to bid for the next phase of the project to be carried out in 17 tehsils across Punjab. The process started by the advert resulted in the shortlisting of five companies that were to work on more than 35 separate schemes. This progress, however, soon fell apart. “There was a strong apprehension that these companies could have captured the bidding process through pooling,” read the minutes of a meeting held on February 19, 2016 with Shehbaz Sharif in the chair. In one evidence of this pooling, bids for all three contracts for Pattoki tehsil quoted engineering estimates exceeding one billion rupees, notwithstanding the fact that none of the bidding firms was qualified under government rules to carry out works worth that much money.
In order to address the problem, Punjab Saaf Pani Company embarked upon what it called a “post-qualification” process. It “was adopted to save time, ensure more transparency by inviting more firms, and [change] criteria” so that firms capable of carrying out larger projects could take part in it. The CEO of the company told the meeting that these steps were in line with the “usual practice” in many engineering departments and donor agencies and were also in accordance with the rules of the Punjab Public Procurement Regulatory Authority, a public sector watchdog for government-awarded contracts.
The chief minister agreed that no procurement rules were violated but he added that a better option was to take a “pre-qualification route” for the inclusion of more firms “because that was the hallmark of all mega projects happening in Punjab”. He also “expressed his concern over lack of interest from international companies in” the contracts “despite foreign visits” by the minister and the secretary of the Punjab Housing, Urban Development and Public Health Engineering Department and “other officers associated with” Punjab Saaf Pani Company. He “observed” that the company needed to club “small contracts into big contracts” to “attract” international firms of “reputed brands” in the water sector. Punjab Saaf Pani Company “should have devised a strategy to bring those companies” into the bidding process, he said, and suggested the “holding [of] international road shows in different countries” to reach “out to those companies”.
Waseem Ajmal, the CEO of Punjab Saaf Pani Company at the time, told another meeting, convened on February 27, 2016 and chaired by Shehbaz Sharif, that a committee set up previously to look into the award of contracts found “no adverse substance” in the “experience and credentials of the recommended contractors”. The process adopted for awarding the contracts was “legal, transparent, bona fide and in accordance” with procurement rules, Ajmal said. He also repeated what the chief minister had earlier suggested – that “larger projects” involving international firms should be devised “in the future” – but this sounded more like a concession he was willing to make only after the project being discussed was approved.
Shehbaz Sharif changed tack and this time criticised the escalation of the project cost. It had increased from the original estimate of 121 billion rupees to 190.34 billion rupees. Shehbaz Sharif ordered Ajmal to “submit a detailed report to explain” the increase within three days. He, however, approved the award of the contracts “with a heavy heart” and as “a stand-alone” case, subject to the condition that he himself “will thoroughly monitor the project execution” and that a third-party validation “will be vigorously conducted” of all works.
Before his conditional approval could become formal, the chief minister made another move.
He chaired a high-level meeting through a video link on March 1, 2016. The chairman of the Planning and Development Department informed the meeting that Sinohydro Corporation Limited, a Chinese company working on a number of water sector projects in Pakistan, has been “briefed” on the Punjab Saaf Pani Company “and the contracts being offered” for setting up clean drinking water supply schemes in Pattoki tehsil. He said, “Sinohydro has shown willingness to participate even for smaller contracts”. Shehbaz Sharif directed the chairman to “constitute a committee to visit China in order to interact with Sinohydro”.

Punjab Saaf Pani Company’s records show its total expenditure so far to be at slightly less than three billion rupees. And yet the company has nothing to show for it all.

He also “agreed to the suggestion” of holding road shows in China as well as in “Dubai where all major international companies can participate”.
All these meetings essentially ended up taking the entire project back to the drawing table. The ongoing bidding process was all but scrapped even though it had the chief minister’s conditional approval and renewed efforts were launched to attract foreign companies.
The road shows held in China were extremely successful — that is, if the minutes of a meeting held on April 29, 2016 are to be believed. The participants of the meeting were told that “48 companies in Shanghai and 22 in Beijing attended” the road shows “and showed interest in working with” Punjab Saaf Pani Company. In his briefing, Ajmal said that the size of each contract had been “worked out” to 10 billion rupees “to attract well-reputed international companies”.
Shehbaz Sharif had developed other concerns by that time. He said he was told at the beginning of the project that making clean drinking water accessible for the whole of Punjab would require 70 billion rupees “but now it is [increased to 118 billion rupees] for 35 selected tehsils of 12 districts”. He directed Punjab Saaf Pani Company to “revisit estimates and come up with valid justifications for this escalation in cost”.
Ajmal explained there were two major reasons for cost escalation: addition of solar panels to provide electricity to water filtration plants and operations and maintenance expenditure for five years after they start functioning. The chief minister said “the solar component itself needed to be reviewed considering the expected increase in energy supply in coming years [and its] high-maintenance cost”. A few months later, he would reject the solar option for a different reason.
In a meeting held on May 7, 2016, Ajmal stated that the project would be divided into three phases. According to him, 33 tehsils in high priority districts would be covered in the first phase that would cost 117 billion rupees. The second phase would cost 50 billion rupees and the third 133 billion rupees, he said. “All costs of the project may reach 300 billion [rupees],” he pointed out.
It was obvious from the different numbers being bandied about that the confusion – and consequently the concerns – over the scope and cost of the project were becoming quite pronounced.
Shehbaz Sharif made another move that further exacerbated the confusion. He raised questions about the studies being carried out by the engineering management consultants working with Punjab Saaf Pani Company to find out the financial, social and environmental costs of the project. He suggested their work “should be validated by an independent, internationally recognised consultant firm”. At the same time, he was pushing for very strict timelines: he wanted work on the first phase to begin in May 2016 and be completed by December 2017. The second and the third phase, he said, must be completed by February and April 2018, respectively. Ajmal’s argument was that these timelines could only be met if work started immediately and all the required money was made available instantly.
The two men were clearly not seeing eye to eye.
The meeting was followed by another advertisement in international and national newspapers – published on May 17, 2016 – to invite local and foreign firms to bid for the contracts. The last date for submitting bids was set to be June 17, 2016. The chief minister directed that Pakistan’s embassies in China, Turkey, the United States and European countries “should be approached to attract good and renowned companies working in [the] water sector”.
The deadline for submitting the tender came and went. A meeting held on the day of the deadline was told that 33 companies had purchased bidding documents. The chief minister was not entirely satisfied. He directed Punjab Saaf Pani Company to “ensure that no substandard company” is shortlisted for the bidding process. He also directed other senior officials to “ensure that only top-class and worldwide recognised companies” are shortlisted.
Some inside sources claim that the bidding process was stalled because a French company, Vinci Construction, had approached the chief minister through his former aide Dr Tauqir Shah, expressing its willingness to take part in the bidding process and seeking an extension in the deadline. The firm has experience of working in Pakistan, having helped Faisalabad city modernise its water supply and sanitation systems. A 20-day extension was given. The company, however, failed to fulfil all the documentary requirements within the new deadline, submitting only a financial proposal without a technical one. The entire bidding process was held back — one more time.
The process of shortlisting the firms that qualified for bidding was not complete even by July 23, 2016 when the provincial chief secretary told the participants that 64 international companies had submitted the bids. Vinci Construction was conspicuous by its absence.
By August 23, 2016, Shehbaz Sharif was having second thoughts about the entire operation of Punjab Saaf Pani Company. He ordered its large-scale restructuring. As a first step, it was divided into two — along the geographical lines of north and south Punjab. Its board of directors was also reconstituted and the government hired a German firm, Fichtner Water and Transportation, to review its working.
Children carry empty containers on their way to collect drinking water | shutterstock
Children carry empty containers on their way to collect drinking water | shutterstock
That the chief minister was about to reinvent the wheel became apparent when he directed the chairman of the Planning and Development Department to come up with “formal” medium and long-term plans within 30 days with help from Fichtner Water and Transportation for the water sector, “keeping in view the challenges of groundwater availability and sanitation issues of Punjab”. This was a recourse to the old bureaucratic approach that worked through different departments starting with the one responsible for planning and development. Shehbaz Sharif once saw it as a stumbling block for quick progress on development projects.
He told a representative of the German consultancy firm that his government expected it to carry out “an independent review” of all “components and stages” of the project being carried out by Punjab Saaf Pani Company. He also ordered the firm to evaluate the shortlisting of “contractors and consultants and assess whether they have been appointed as per the approved terms and conditions/parameters”. It was a complete vote of no-confidence in the performance of an entity he had himself envisioned and put in place. Something somewhere did not seem to be working the way he wanted.

Approximately twenty years have passed since the problem of poisonous water first surfaced in the twin villages and still they do not have a functional water filtration plant.

In a subsequent meeting on September 30, 2016 he was even more categorical. He told Fichtner Water and Transportation to “evaluate/review the hiring process” of engineering management consultants by Punjab Saaf Pani Company. The consultancy was requited to find out whether these consultants included foreign experts as team leaders and whether locally-based consultancies engaged by Punjab Saaf Pani Company had ‘lead’ foreign partners. The next logical step was to probe if these consultants had shortlisted contractors with the right kind of financial and technical resources to bid for the contracts. The entire project was now up in smoke unless Fichtner Water and Transportation found that there was nothing wrong with it.
It did just that. It reported that engineering management consultants were local firms working in partnership with international firms as joint ventures and are led by international team leaders. It pointed out that the condition to engage foreign/international firms as lead partners was “not available” in the minutes of any meetings chaired by the chief minister. It further said that feasibility studies done by the engineering management consultants “have been elaborate with sufficient thoroughness … they are generally comprehensive and very detailed” and that “the contractor has the possibility to adopt the best technical solution” for water treatment and renewable energy “on the basis of the outcome of these feasibility studies”. It, similarly, rejected concerns about the shortlisted contractors. “These 19 firms are well renowned in the water treatment sector” and they have “worldwide experience to design, execute and operate the drinking water supply projects”.
Nobody could read the chief minister’s mind. He probably was not going to accept any of this.
In a meeting he chaired on November 6, 2016 he asked what kind of energy solutions were being proposed for the project. Ajmal responded that some companies were suggesting hybrid solutions — solar power along with grid electricity or solar power complemented by generators. Shehbaz Sharif observed that solar panels might be too expensive for use in the project so the money to be spent on them must be saved and used for some other project by Punjab Saaf Pani Company.
In plain words, all the companies that had solar power as an energy component in their technical proposals needed to revise and rewrite their proposal — further delaying the awarding of contracts. The German consultancy he had himself engaged warned that the entire first phase of the project would take 15 months to complete. If it started in December 2016, it would only be completed by February 2018.
The chief minister inexplicably let the process linger. While chairing a meeting on November 25, 2016, he stated that the processes being followed in the project might be legal but his concern was with “the quality rather than legality”. His preference was on full display in the meeting. He would not brook any argument otherwise.
Kashif Padhiar, who at the time was working as the chairman of Punjab Saaf Pani Company’s board of directors, argued in favour of awarding the contracts as per the bids submitted by 19 companies earlier. He argued that engaging new contractors from abroad “would take time” at a juncture when the government was under massive social pressure to “provide water at the earliest”. Managing director of the Punjab Public Procurement Regulatory Authority argued that the firms that had submitted the bids “do not have [an] innovative or modern approach” but the award of the contracts must be approved. The chairman of the Planning and Development Department, too, voted for approving the contracts — though he said this should be done only “if time is a constraint”.
Ajmal meekly tried to save the project by saying that the contractors were bringing in contamination-free water treatment plants and deploying solar energy. The chief minister dismissed his contention by saying that the whole project had the same old approach that was once adopted by the Public Health Engineering Department – the one he wanted to overturn through Punjab Saaf Pani Company. He ordered Ajmal to restart everything and “embark upon [an] innovative and modern approach through [the] best water companies in the world”.
If only he had named some of them, all his subordinates would have rushed and brought them onboard, no matter how much it cost the exchequer and the taxpayer.
Ajmal was already on his way out by then. On December 31, 2016, the Punjab Housing, Urban Development and Public Health Engineering Department sent a letter to the director general of Punjab’s Anti-Corruption Establishment, stating that the top management of Punjab Saaf Pani Company had spiked up the cost of project contracts from 121 billion rupees to 194 billion rupees without informing its own board of directors about the increase in a proper and timely manner. The letter mentioned a news report published in daily Business Recorder and alleged that “doubts/issues were raised by certain quarters on the bidding process” carried out on May 13, 2016 to select companies for the execution of the project. Anti-corruption authorities were asked to conduct an investigation with “special reference to the appointment of officers/officials of the company related to the execution of the project [and] Engineering Management Consultants (EMCs) and possible wrongdoing/corrupt practices in estimates” and increase therein.
The Anti-Corruption Establishment immediately ordered an inquiry and set up a probe team that found out that Punjab Saaf Pani Company made “illegal/excess payment amounting to 10,069,144 [rupees] on account of weather shield [paint]” to KSB; that an “attempt was made to deprive the public at large” of scarce financial resources through unjustified and non-uniform application of risk/cost factors to increase the project estimates; that engineering management consultants were selected through favouritism and were paid even when they had not completed their required tasks; that the company made an illegal payment of 58.995 million rupees to its third party validation consultant, Alpha Consult, as salary for its international staff “without verification of their arrival, stay [and] departure status”; and that “excess payment” was made to KSB “without applying reduced rate as per contract agreement”.
The inquiry report was finalised on October 5, 2017 and it recommended the filing of a case against 22 people including Ajmal and other senior officers of Punjab Saaf Pani Company. A first information report (FIR) was subsequently registered at the Anti-Corruption Establishment’s directorate on October 25, 2017 under legal provisions that cover such crimes as fraud, deception, forgery, criminal breach of trust and misappropriation of funds among others.
The matter is pending further investigation and trial.
Apart from these allegations, government officers interviewed for this report allege that some foreign companies were the reason why the project has never gone ahead. These firms could not legally become a part of the bidding process but are being backed by influential personalities in the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz as well as by some serving and former senior government officials. At least one Turkish company is said to have submitted an unsolicited proposal for clean drinking water schemes in Sahiwal district. It is alleged to have the backing of Hamza Shahbaz. It did not get any contracts though.
The impact of all this internal wrangling has been devastating for the people in Punjab thirsting for clean drinking water. Slightly more than three years have passed since Punjab Saaf Pani Company was set up. More than 30 months have passed since the process began for inviting and shortlisting companies to take part in the construction of clean drinking water supply schemes. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars have been paid as consultant fees. Millions of rupees have been spent on foreign tours and road shows. Hundreds of millions of rupees have been expended on staff salaries as well as office and administrative costs. Punjab Saaf Pani Company’s records show its total expenditure so far to be at slightly less than three billion rupees. And yet the company has nothing to show for it all.
Many sources in the Punjab government blame it on the whimsical way the chief minister has handled the company and its working. He has constantly shifted the goalposts and added layer after layer of reviews and monitoring by outside consultants even before the project moved beyond its documentation and preparatory stages. And, at the same time, he successfully blamed the top management of Punjab Saaf Pani Company for the delays and bottlenecks in its execution. Every single CEO of the company left it in ignominy — starting from Waseem Mukhtar, who headed it when it was still in the process of being corporatised, to Farasat Iqbal to Waseem Ajmal to Khalid Sherdil. Before each one of them was kicked out of the post, a probe into their conduct as the head of the company had already been ordered, though an FIR has been registered only against Ajmal and his associates.
The Punjab government’s spokesperson Malik Muhammad Ahmad Khan acknowledges that there have been multiple problems with the functioning of the project but he first wants its success stories mentioned. “Pilot project in south Punjab has produced good results.” Issues arose when the government tried to take the project to a larger level, he says.
Khan claims the project designed by Punjab Saaf Pani Company envisioned laying down pipelines to carry water from filtration plants to homes. It was soon realised that this was not a feasible option in already settled areas, he says. The other problem, he points out, concerned extraordinary increases in project costs. “[The chief minister] had doubts over the pricing due to his past experience with projects of this nature.”
Shehbaz Sharif, according to Khan, did not micromanage the project but he was only ensuring that the public’s money was not misused. One reason why multiple CEOs were appointed and replaced at Punjab Saaf Pani Company was that they had all failed to address design problems in the project, Khan says. The other reason was that they abused their power, he adds.
It was for these reasons that the chief minister initiated an inquiry which revealed that “Ajmal had over-invoiced the project cost by 62 billion rupees and had hired consultants at higher than market rates”. He and his associates in the management were also found to have been involved in the overbilling of 20 to 40 million rupees, Khan alleges.
How long must the residents of Kulalanwala and Kot Asadullah wait for this departmental musical chairs to end and all the turf wars between the powerful to conclude before they can have easy and ready access to clean drinking water? The answer is obvious: as long as Shehbaz Sharif is unwilling to stop micromanaging the affairs of Punjab Saaf Pani Company.