THE basic purpose behind the annual declaration of income and assets by politicians is to promote probity and integrity in public life. This is a worldwide practice which lets the public know that the legislators elected by them are honestly carrying out their responsibilities and not misusing their position to amass illegal wealth. But in our case, this annual ritual has lost all its meaning and become a cruel joke. Most declarations are half heartedly made, facts are concealed and figures manipulated with the result that the assets declared by MPs do not match their life style.
This is what is revealed by the details of assets owned by the country's politicians pasted on the official website of Election Commission of Pakistan. Starting with PM Nawaz Sharif, he is the country's richest politician with assets worth Rs2 billion. Interestingly, his investment in a sugar mill has registered a six-fold increase within a year. Contrary to general belief, Pakistan Tehreeki-Insaf chief Imran Khan too owns considerable assets - 14 properties across Pakistan, including a gifted residence in Bani Gala, Islamabad, which is spread over 300 kanals. He inherited nine of the properties while the rest were purchased for paltry sums at an unspecified time. Imran Khan has also chosen not to mention the market value of his properties.
In what appears to be a clear case of conflict of interests, Water and Power Minister Khawaja Asif owns thousands of shares in KElectric. The minister also owns two houses in DHA, Lahore, and five plots in Sialkot but in his wife's name. Shahbaz Sharif is the richest among the chief ministers, though on an individual basis, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Parvaiz Khattak is richer than Shahbaz, with a net worth of Rs262 million. Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah claims to be the poorest among the provincial heads of government, with a declared net worth of Rs19.4 million, even lower than Balochistan Chief Minister Abdul Malik Baloch, who declared a net worth of Rs30 million. Qaim Ali Shah's declarations include the incredible assertion that the house he owns on Khayaban-e-Mujahid in DHA Karachi is worth only Rs3.2 million. Its real worth is 10 times more. He has also claimed that he owns no vehicle. Senator Rehman Malik does politics in Pakistan but he has all his assets abroad worth millions of British Pounds. Interestingly, he has no immovable property anywhere in the country. Maulana Fazlur Rehman of the JUI-F has no car but owns three houses worth Rs4.07m in Dera Ismail Khan. Khursheed Shah, though worth over 20 million, also owns no car.
Clearly, the value of assets in most cases is grossly understated. Section 42A of the Representation of Peoples Act binds the lawmakers to declare their assets but it does not elaborate any mechanism to verify their claims. The law also prescribes punishments for those who try to cheat. But in the absence of any mechanism to verify the stated claims of lawmakers, the ECP does not go beyond publishing them as inane routine every year.
Needless to say, as part of the electoral reform process, a detailed scrutiny of legislators' assets is a must to establish a candidate's eligibility to hold high office. People whose assets are out of tune with their declared incomes and their lifestyles should be asked where the money is coming from, and whether tax liabilities have been cleared against the incomes from which the assets have been accumulated. Without asking these relevant questions, the whole point of the annual exercise of assets declaration is lost.