(The Express Tribune) By Shahbaz Rana
The federal government has approved a $200 million, or Rs33 billion, project to fight locust – an initiative that violates the Act of parliament that calls for proper due diligence before launching mega schemes.
A detailed review of project documents revealed that the focus of the scheme seemed to be more on procurement of 310 vehicles, 485 laptops and creating about 528 positions rather than helping the farmers.
Around $120 million cost of the project is not directly related to locust mitigation.
Out of the total cost of Rs33 billion, Rs4.7 billion has been allocated for buying double-cabin vehicles (Rs2.34 billion) and their fuel cost (Rs2.4 billion).
Another nearly half a billion rupees will be consumed on buying laptops and close to Rs1 billion will be given to a United Nations’ body for technical cooperation despite opposition from the Planning Commission.
All expenditures on the Locust Emergency and Food Security Project will be met by borrowing $200 million from the World Bank, which will add to the country’s already high foreign debt.
The Executive Committee of National Economic Council (Ecnec) – the highest decision-making body – last week approved, in principle, the project after a debate on the need of the scheme, buying vehicles and spending in an area which fell within the domain of provinces, sources told The Express Tribune.
The locust emergency project was not part of the Ecnec meeting agenda, as in the last meeting held on September 29, the Ministry of National Food Security and Research could not satisfy the Planning Commission, showed official documents. However, Ecnec gave the go-ahead with some caveats.
After 28 years, locust attacked and destroyed crops in vast areas of Sindh, Balochistan and south Punjab. The government declared a national emergency on February 1 this year to cope with the situation with the support of Pakistan Army.
However, the Ministry of Finance declared last week that locust attack had been restricted and there were remote chances of its recurrence.
The presence of locust is restricted to Tharparkar in Sindh and Lasbela in Balochistan, according to the Economic Outlook of September.
“Extensive survey in Pakistan is no longer required at present as there is no possibility of migration or breeding in any area except the desert regions of Sindh and Punjab. Control measures at affected places are still in operation,” according to the outlook.
Sources said Ecnec members had also raised the question of having such a huge project at the federal level instead of creating centres in provinces that were responsible for the agriculture sector after the 18th Constitutional Amendment.
Project documents showed that the scheme had been prepared and approved without conducting a feasibility study, which was a violation of the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) 2019.
The chief of Planning Commission “observed that PC-I lacks a feasibility study and a clear mechanism on the fate of six aircraft, for which the procurement process has started before approval of the PC-I,” according to minutes of a Central Development Working Party (CDWP) meeting held in August this year.
Sections 14 and 17 of the PFMA state that no development project can be approved without first conducting technical studies and ensuring allocation in the budget.
The food ministry neither conducted feasibility study nor secured budget allocation, though it had been preparing the project much before presentation of the budget.
Sources said there was major concern over the need for buying hundreds of vehicles and creating more positions at a time of austerity.
“The project intends to procure 310 double-cabin vehicles, 485 laptops along with human resources of 528 persons,” said the Ecnec summary. Furthermore, six aircraft and four drones will also be procured.
In its August meeting, the CDWP had raised objections to the project, which Ecnec summary revealed were not addressed till October 1 – the day when Ecnec gave, in principle, clearance.
“Proposed number of project staff, laptops and vehicles to implement the activities also need justification and rationalisation,” according to minutes of the CDWP meeting.
The Planning Commission had also highlighted that after the 18th Constitutional Amendment, the subject had been devolved to provinces. It also objected to involving the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN and instead recommended to involve the National Agriculture Research Council.
“The Ministry of National Food Security has not yet complied with requirements stipulated by the CDWP,” said the Ecnec summary.
“Member food observed that sponsors were not clear about the implementation strategy of the project and sponsors could not satisfy the chair regarding the implementation mechanism and fate of food security,” according to minutes of the September 29 meeting held in the planning ministry.
Food ministry’s version
“This project has been submitted for emergency response financing because Pakistan’s food security and sustainability of agriculture sector is endangered,” said the food security ministry while responding to a question about not conducting the feasibility study.
“Under these pressing circumstances and squeezed timelines for World Bank financing cycle, it is impossible to devise a feasibility study,” it added.
Since the inception of the project till its execution and completion, the food ministry partners with the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organisation, it said.
These partnering organisations have additional experience in implementation of such emergency response programmes with reference to all technical and fiduciary aspects, the ministry said.
To a question about start of the aircraft procurement process even before approval of the project, the ministry said the aircraft procurement process was initiated by the National Locust Control Centre (NLCC) with consent of the prime minister during the national locust emergency.
On the directives of the PM, a high-level committee was constituted comprising federal secretaries of national food security, finance and defence along with chairman of NDMA and representation from the Pakistan Army Aviation.
“The committee is looking after the process of aircraft procurement, operations and management as well as service-level contracts,” it said.
The ministry also defended the need for having 310 vehicles and said the required vehicles need physical modification to install and operate large-sized micron air sprayers, which only operate through vehicle mounting.
The food ministry said the total recurring operational cost of the project will be Rs800 million after completion of the project.
Provinces will also share human resources under the project and will only retain physical assets extended to them under surveillance, control, livelihood rehabilitation and early warning components in consonance with the National Action Plan on Desert Locust Control, and will bear their operation expenses.
The ministry said due to emergency nature of the project and squeezed timelines of the World Bank financing cycle and Planning Commission requirements, this project was not allocated in the PSDP for 2020-21.
A special approval is being sought from the PM as per rules and regulations for inclusion of the project in the current PSDP cycle, it added.