SPENDING is an essential and major function of the government and all state run or financed enterprises and organisations, whether autonomous or semi-autonomous. Procurement accounts for a substantial share, if not always the lion's share, of that spending, as in the case of the nation's development budget. Hence a clear and proper guideline to govern procurement is a necessary requirement for ensuring that the state gets the value for its money spent and thus stems corruption to stop avoidable drainage of resources. Previously, there was a purchase manual, administered by the ministry of commerce, to regulate this important activity. Being not a law, it had the weakness of being changeable at strokes of pen by those in authority whenever they thought it convenient either to serve an exigency or for undue personal benefits. It was boiled down through a series of amendment into a shred of a rule with a lot of loopholes enabling the corrupt to abuse it ruthlessly for acquiring unearned wealth. The government has now processed a draft bill supposedly based on the subsequent procurement guidelines, for enactment of a law to govern procurement wherein state spending is involved. The cabinet has approved the draft bill with some amendments and it will eventually become a law in due process to meet a long-felt need.
Some of the features of the draft bill, as reported on in this newspaper, are interesting. It contains a proviso for forming two committees - one advisory in nature comprising 11 members to suggest its amendments and the other consisting of bureaucrats and representatives of the apex trade bodies to review public procurement disputes whenever they arise. The framers of the draft who reportedly took one long year seem to have known that the new law based on their draft will require to be amended. The draft could have been perfected through extensive discussions with competent experts and trade bodies prior to placement before the cabinet. Having 79 clauses, the draft bill runs through seven chapters. Will its length and the crosscurrent of so many provisions create a legal jungle to make procurement difficult?
However, a law is far stronger than any other instruments of the state to regulate its functions in varied spheres and cannot be altered without parliamentary approval requiring the support of majority MPs. Hence whatever are its lacunae, the proposed law will never be ineffective like the purchase manual unless, of course, it contains provisions allowing to circumvent it under exceptional circumstances and split purchases. The state being the largest spender, the provision of the law regarding punishment of defaulting executives under the Government Servants (Discipline and Appeal) Rules may provoke the vulnerable to skid the law in big deals where kickbacks may surpass service benefits by a few folds. The provision for simultaneous criminal proceedings may not deter much as corruption is usually done by twisting rules and not through outright theft or an apparent error of commission. It is not known whether there is any provision in the draft bill for punishment of an offending minister now that he is the chief executive of his ministry under the amended Rules of Business. Perhaps there will be a spate of unease between such a minister and the secretary of his ministry who still remains the principal accounting officer of the ministry under the same Rules of Business to be squarely accountable for any violation of the proposed law. Since the draft bill, as reported by another major daily, permits departure from its provisions in exceptional cases, the apprehended unease may not surface but the proposed law will be largely ineffectual. One hopes that the parliament will look into all these while passing the pertinent bill.