Initiated in 2014 the Ashiana-Iqbal project could not be completed mainly because an illegal award increased the cost, and if it were to be initiated now, the escalated cost of Rs 40 billion will be borne either by the applicants of the government. As Lahore Development Authority (LDA) director general between 2013 and 2016, Ahad Khan Cheema was also a member on the Punjab Land Development Corporation (PLDC) board. In a meeting on October 21, 2014, the then Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif ordered that the Ashiana-Iqbal project be transferred from PLDC to DG LDA.
This decision had no rationale as, according to law, only the PLDC board was competent to carry out its projects such as Ashiana-Iqbal. Why was the PLDC board bypassed to process Ashiana scheme at LDA? It is evident that the project was put under the “one-man show” of Ahad Cheema to accommodate a favourite bidder which, incidentally, is a proxy company of Paragon. The project was moved to LDA under the garb of “planning and design”, but there are records which prove that DG LDA conducted the bidding and issued letter of award to a favourite bidder. Once this was done, the project was transferred back to PLDC.
The 2014 Public Private Partnership (PPP) Act requires hiring transaction advisors for preparing feasibility studies and bidding documents when the government agency does not have relevant expertise. This misuse of authority with criminal intent surfaced because Cheema got fraudulent and deceitful bidding documents and a project feasibility report prepared by co-accused Bilal Kidwai. Kidwai did not have the necessary experience to prepare the feasibility and bidding documents for a housing project under the PPP mode. When Cheena presented the Ashiana-Iqbal project proposal and draft bidding documents, without supporting calculations, for the 17th meeting of the PP steering committee on November 20, 2014, certain observations were raised by the PPP cell. One of the observations was that dilution of lead member shareholding be restricted because Section 14 (d) of the PPP Act required that, in case the bidder is a consortium, its members and their roles and proposed shareholdings shall be disclosed at the pre-qualification stage.
Cheema and Kidwai agreed to address the observations. However, they granted illegal benefit to Bismillah Engineering Service Co, a proxy firm of Paragon which, incidentally, did not even submit the bidding documents. The contract was awarded to Bismillah by falsely showing other companies as lead members of the joint venture, whereas it was in their knowledge that Bismillah, a C4 company, was the lead member while the names of big companies such as SPARKO and Anhui China were shown to falsely use their credentials for awarding higher marks to Bismillah.
Cheema’s case is an excellent example of a massive white-collar crime whereby the hopes of thousands of poor families were sacrificed on the altar of greed of one bureaucrat and his political bosses. Consider the money trail with the purchase of 100 kanal of land near DHA Lahore. For this, Rs 127.5 million was simultaneously paid from Paragon accounts and a similar amount was paid by Cheema and his family.
Wasit mere coincidence that Paragon paid Rs 127.5 million for the land which came to Cheema exactly during the time (2014) when the contract was being processed? This is nothing other than a bribe. Cheema received illegal gratification of 100 kanal of land in Lahore from Paragon in lieu of his unlawful act of awarding the contract to an ineligible firm. For his personal gain of land now worth Rs 300 million, Cheema caused a direct loss of Rs 660 million to the exchequer and an indirect further loss of Rs 4 billion to be shared by the public and government.
Cheema and his family have not been able to explain this transaction and their silence on the issue is incriminating. Incidentally, it is common for assets purchased out of bribes to be in the name of family members, employees and associates. The superior courts in various cases held that benamidars should not be condemned unheard but given an opportunity during investigation to present their views. Since Cheema and his family members were direct beneficiaries, it was mandatory for NAB to question his relatives. NAB’s interrogation was conducted lawfully. In fact, after meeting Ahad at the NAB prison in February 2018, his family members acknowledged the agency’s conduct before the media. The LHC held that there wasprima facie reasonable grounds to believe the petitioner’s involvement in the alleged offence. The LHC dismissed the bail petitions of the beneficiaries’ family members, Mansoor Ahmad and Ahmad Hassan, who are still at large.
This was not all. Cheema fraudulently handed over land measuring 2,100 kanalsand worth Rs 14.00 billion to the ineligible company which was projected as an extension of Paragon’s project to raise deposits for their housing scheme. Following NAB’s probe, the government reclaimed the land, but only after suffering a loss of Rs 600 million in the form of expenditure on the project and liquidation damages. Once Fawad Hassan Fawad categorically stated that he forced the LDA to cancel the award of contract to Chaudhry Latif & Sons, done at the behest of Shahbaz Sharif, did the former CM finally acknowledge that he gave instructions that the award went to Paragon. Ostensibly, Paragon is owned by the Saad brothers, and such evidence is believed to have been recovered from a bank. It stands to reason that the Saad brothers were gifted this contract by Shahbaz as a political quid pro quo. In both the cases the so-called honest bureaucrats have acquired massive assets beyond their known sources of income.
Some inspired articles appeared recently, supporting the stance of the accused in the housing scheme scams. While one assumes NAB has enough evidence to support its probe, what should the law do with those who deliberately planted false stories to enable the corrupt to escape justice?
Adefence and security analyst, the writer is a member of World Economic Forum’s Partnering Against Corruption Initiative.