People & Society Meteor

Ahad Cheema and the burden of the bureaucracy

Updated 19 Apr, 2018 10:59pm


Illustration by Maria Huma
Illustration by Maria Huma

The blue-eyed boy is now blacklisted. Former Lahore Development Authority (LDA) chief Ahad Cheema is being labelled as Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s ‘front man’ — a front man now behind bars.

His arrest was met with shock and anger from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN). The Punjab cabinet convened a meeting – the first in its history – to discuss his detention. On the floor of the provincial assembly, lawmakers on the treasury benches condemned his arrest in the loudest manner possible. Opposition members also protested — why was Cheema promoted just when he was being detained for corruption? Pakistan Administrative Service (PAS) officers, meanwhile, saw his arrest as their collective humiliation. Some of them went on a day-long strike; an urgent meeting of senior officers was convened to discuss the ways and means to continue protests over his arrest. Why is it that one bureaucrat’s detention sent such strong shockwaves through the entire administrative system of Punjab? Perhaps a greater malady lies hidden beneath the surface.

Cheema has been under interrogation by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) since his arrest on February 21. The grade-19 PAS officer has been accused of misusing his authority to award a 14-billion-rupee contract to a development firm for a low-cost housing scheme in Lahore. In return, Cheema reportedly received 32 kanals of land which was then allegedly transferred to various members of his family, including his cousin and sister. NAB claims the land was bought with over 30 million rupees transferred in to the account of Paragon Housing Society, a company said to be linked to federal railways minister Saad Rafique. Rafique denies having anything to do with it.

It is clear from the posts Cheema held – chief of the LDA and Quaid-e-Azam Thermal Power Company – that he was, or rather is, a favourite of the provincial government. His relatively quick ascent to high profile posts suggests the same. He also seems to be entrenched firmly in bureaucratic circles as is evident from the anger exhibited by his colleagues over his arrest. Cheema’s wife, too, is a serving officer of the Punjab government. Only recently she was working as the deputy commissioner of Okara before being transferred to the Punjab Finance Department. This sway of individuals over institutions is the major reason why governance has become so personalised and the rule of law so whimsical. When favouritism becomes the sole criterion for the selection and appointment of a bureaucrat, what results is a spineless administrative machinery, ever-ready to say yes to the boss, regardless of the legality of his order.

Cheema’s case is linked to something else. In November last year, NAB started investigating 56 public limited companies working under the Punjab government. A corruption case involving 80 billion rupees is also being heard in the Lahore High Court in relation to these companies. Together the two cases have been a major public relations disaster for the image of the Punjab government. Clearly, all is not well.

There is, undeniably, a force chipping away at the heart of the PMLN administration in Punjab. The judiciary is less than amicable, NAB is adamant on unearthing skeletons of the past and the military has its own scores to settle. The bureaucracy, however, will continue to side with the Sharifs if they can demonstrate that they are going to stay in power in the province. The Cheemas of the world would not want to desert their long-time benefactors without being certain about the dawn of a Sharif-less era in Punjab.

There is often talk of an urgent need for reforms in the police force to make it apolitical. It is equally necessary to make the bureaucracy apolitical. It is there to serve the people, not politicians and their own selves. But examples of the latter abound — particularly, of offices with ties to the PMLN. Even federal ministers have complained that the highest bureaucracy is beholden to political bosses at the very top, accusing Fawad Hasan Fawad, the principal secretary to the prime minister, of being an impediment to work in their departments. Elsewhere, too, the bureaucracy seems rather fallible. Remember Mushtaq Raisani, the former Balochistan finance secretary? NAB recovered more than 730 million rupees from his residence in Quetta.

Cheema’s arrest only underscores what is obvious: a comeuppance has been a long time coming.

This was originally published in Herald's April 2018 issue. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.