PM’s courageous decision

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PUTTING all sorts of speculations at rest about possibility of sweeping the sugar scandal under the carpet, Prime Minister Imran Khan fulfilled his pledge on Thursday by making the forensic audit report on sugar price public. The comprehensive report of the Sugar Commission uncovers the gross misconduct by sugar industry in the form of under-reported sugar sales, sale of commodity to benamidar (unnamed) buyers, double booking, over-invoicing, under-invoiced sale of bagasse and molasses which resulted in cost inflation and many other corporate frauds have been detected in the transactions of sugar mills.
It was, indeed, a difficult decision to make for the Prime Minister as the scam involved his close aides and coalition partners but publication of the report proves the Government believes in transparency and has sincere intentions to reform the rotten system. This is also confirmed by a follow up move of the premier who has asked his special assistants and advisors to declare their assets to the cabinet division. It is, however, strange that why they were previously not required to do so when all elected representatives are duty bound to submit declaration of assets to the Election Commission and all civil servants declare assets annually. There is also a welcome pronouncement about drafting of a law on conflict of interest as, according to the Prime Minister, businessmen in politics will put business first and this remained the practice in the past and report of the Sugar Commission reveals this happened during tenure of the incumbent government as well. Anyhow, the topics covered by the Commission like fudging the production cost to claim subsidies, manipulating the market, underreporting their sales, committing fraud and exploiting farmers have the potential to streamline working of the sugar industry and ensuring reasonable price both for farmers and the consumers provided the authorities concerned take the findings seriously and evolve a fair mechanism for the purpose. This should be a priority as the sugar barons raked in a windfall profit of Rs. 100 billion during the sugar crisis this year alone. There is a logic in the argument that the subsidy was provided by the Government under a policy decision and, therefore, it would be wrong to put blames in this regard on sugar industry but there are also issues of tax evasion, fake exports, continuation of the subsidy when dollar appreciated dramatically resulting into earning of billions of rupees by sugar exporters, non-payment of support price to farmers and determination of the weight of the sugarcane at around 15 to 30% less than the actual weight by all mills. In the backdrop of large-scale wrongdoings by sugar mafia, all saner elements would surely appreciate the decision of the Prime Minister to go deep into the scandal and make the report public. However, this should not be end of the matter as the real task lies ahead. We must not forget that the Commission was set up against the backdrop of a cycle of sugar price hikes resulting into appreciation of the price from Rs. 54 to Rs. 94 a kilo and the rate is still hovering around Rs. 82 a kilo. If prices were increased unjustifiably then these must be reversed to provide genuine and due relief to the consumer, who is still being fleeced openly. The scandal has also raised questions about quality of decisions taken by the Economic Coordination Committee of the Cabinet (ECC) and their rubber stamping by the Federal Cabinet. It must be ensured that these forums make decisions in the interest of the general public and not become tools in the hands of vested interests and influential circles. Reforming of the entire working and operation of the sugar industry should be the top priority as any impression of political witch-hunting would prove to be counter-productive to the avowed objective of the Government to attract investment in different sectors of the economy.