Petrol quota cut: How practical is the idea?

"Without introducing drastic changes in the use of official vehicles, all the steps taken by the political heads would be of no use"

Will the government’s policy to cut down free petrol quota for its ministers and other parliamentarians serve the purpose or prove another hare-brained policy?

When this newspaper investigated what is going to happen in the real sense, it was quite astonishing. Punjab government has announced to cut the free petrol to parliamentarians that was widely lauded by many. “There is no doubt that the fuel bill of the central and provincial governments is one of the biggest burdens on the taxpayers’ money. But the politicians in power announcing such a cut in petrol, would be nothing but an eye wash, said an official. Believe it or not, all the parliamentarians including ministers will, for sure, club the fuel expenses with “other expenses” or “office expenses”, he claimed. There is no limit on them. Millions of rupees are in every budget earmarked for office expenses and after this political statement, a major chunk of the money would be used on fuel surely.

There are standing orders under the austerity measures on non-duty travels including dropping children to educational institutions, going to picnic places, parties, or pleasure trips. All these are prohibited. But, in the real sense, they are not. An officer who claims to pay for his private use of an official car said that the ministers have as many cars as they desire. Besides their private secretary and bandwagon of other staff, all use official cars. Moreover, the senior officers and ministers also use vehicles of the public sector companies and autonomous bodies, he claimed. The advisors to CM, parliamentary secretaries and their staff also used them.

A senior officer of the Services and General Administration Department on the condition of anonymity said that all the measures announced by Chief Minister Hamza were an eye wash. He said that during Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s period, such austerity measures were taken but they too were cosmetic. Shahbaz had announced to cut the expenses of the Chief Minister Secretariat. He had announced abolishing 145 slots of officials from the Chief Minister Secretariat. But in the real sense, all these positions were transferred to the SGAD. In the real sense, the officers were posted in the Chief Minister Secretariat while they did draw salary from the SGAD’s account. The only successful move, the officer said, was the change of the name of the Chief Minister Secretariat. It had successfully become the Chief Minister’s office.

Moreover, the officers posted in Governor’s house and the Chief Minister’s Office are entitled to draw an amount equal to basic salaries against utility bills every month. This is in addition to other allowances they draw. He said that Chief Minister Hamza’s announcement would prove to be next to impossible as there would be fake petroleum bills and fuel adjustments. He said that an Administrative Secretary can use up to two vehicles. The POL for one is 200 liters per month while for the other one that is usually used for official tours is unlimited. He said that the additional secretary can use 175 liters, deputy secretary 150 liters per month. The section officers, private secretaries, and personal assistants, who are not entitled to staff cars, drivers and the POL but they not only possess them but also claim petrol and maintenance.

There is also a blatant misuse of official cars by ministers and their staff. There are dozens of cars used in the chief minister’s convoys and protocols. The need to drastically cut down the size of convoys, the official proposed. Since the British era, there is a very strong tradition and law of maintaining log books but these days they are full of fake entries. There are very few who play by the book.

It is a hare-brained scheme that is unlikely to be successful. The only solution to the problem is government should focus on tax collection and reducing the size of its staff. The chief minister should announce to cut the size of the politically recruited army of officials and officers in the departments. The non-development expenditures on salaries and allowances would exceed Rs800 billion a year.

An officer who had served as the S&GAD official motorcade head said that the government should abolish the pool of vehicles. There should be no official vehicle in the departments, attached bodies, autonomous bodies and public sector companies or authorities etc. He said that the government should monetize and give an allowance for the official staff cars to the officers. Only designated vehicles for the assistant commissioners, deputy commissioners and commissioners be allowed.

Those officers of the police and Anti-Corruption Department who usually make raids should be given vehicles. Moreover, the government may contract with companies such as Uber or Careem to provide services to officers for tours. But, if the contract was unjustified it would further cost to the exchequer as happened in the South Punjab Secretariat’s pilot project.

If government abolishes department pools of vehicles but allows the autonomous bodies and public sector companies to have vehicles, the policy of monetization will fail as happened in the federal government. Without introducing drastic changes in the use of official vehicles, all the steps taken by the political heads would be of no use. Besides ruthless accountability, work audit and performance evaluation, there should be no concept of additional allowances.

Javed Iqbal is a special correspondent covering the Punjab government with a particular focus on bureaucracy. He has unearthed a number of mega scams while working with leading media houses. He tweets @javedjahangiri and can be reached at