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War of words on COVID-19 Fund

An audit report on Covid-19 expenditures has pointed out irregularities of up to Rs5.24 billion in purchases of sugar, ghee and wheat flour by the Utility Stores Corporation (USC), including procurement of unfit ghee and edible oil worth Rs1.40bn.

The report on “expenditures incurred on Covid-19 by federal government” released by the finance ministry has pointed out irregularities in government interventions to ensure availability of five essential items — sugar, wheat flour, oil and ghee, pulses and rice — in Utility Stores at subsidised rates.

the outbreak of Covid-19 in the country, the government had launched the Prime Minister’s Relief Package in 2020 and Rs10bn was released to the USC in March that year to provide food items at subsidised rates to the vulnerable section of society. Earlier, the government had also released Rs21bn between December 2019 and March 2020 for procurement of five essential items through 3,989 outlets of retail utility stores. It has been reported that it was only  due to pressure that the government agreed to release the report. This suggests that without this pressure, the government was not willing to share with the citizens these serious allegations which must be probed on a priority basis.

According to the report, the Utility Stores Corporation has the most to answer for in terms of its procurements, quality controls and other violations of standard procedures. Various other government agencies, including the National Disaster Management Authority and the Ehsaas Programme also need to come clean about the objections raised by the AGP.

The PTI government had allocated  budget for Covid relief and had claimed that this money would be utilised to help the financially weaker segments of society cope with the fallout of lockdowns and other Covid-related economic issues. However, it now turns out, as per the AGP report, that these very large sums of money were not managed very well. In fact, if the report is not refuted with evidence, it would suggest financial misappropriation and embezzlement on a very large scale. It would also raise very disturbing questions about the way that government organisations are being run and how the political oversight concerning them is weak and incompetent.This is why it is rather strange that the NCOC is also silent on the matter. As the main coordinating body for all Covid-related activities, NCOC must ensure that the AGP report is explained to the satisfaction of citizens. The NCOC has performed well and is held up as an example of success where most countries have failed to tackle the Covid threat. However, the AGP report also casts a dark shadow on the NCOC because it was after all the umbrella that covered all activities linked to Covid-19 and the government’s policies.

If these serious and specific questions of misappropriations in the AGP report are not addressed by the NCOC, they can threaten to undo the good work that the NCOC has done over the past two years.

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