Pay & Accounts Office system rolled back to appease ‘Contractor Mafia’

The government was forced to roll back the Pay and Accounts Office (PAO) system after a strong opposition of contractors and engineers.

The PAO system was supposed to simplify the process of government payments.

According to this new system, the operational staff of the Finance department would have streamlined the payment system and ensured payments in a specified period.

The system was being integrated with Budget Estimation, Allocation and Monitoring System (BEAMS) for better check of budgetary allocation and authorized expenditure.

However, after the removal of Haseeb Drabu as the finance minister, who was keen on seeing the new PAO system implemented, his successor Altaf Bukhari soon after assuming the charge ordered its roll back.

Bukhari on Tuesday ordered the deferment of PAO system until March 2018.

“We may keep in abeyance the implementation of PAO system till March 31, 2018 in the first place,” the order issued by the finance minister read.

While top officials in the Finance department said that the order was absolutely clear and that the PAO system had not been suspended but deferred for the time being due to “technical difficulties” and inconvenience caused to public”, sources said the new finance minister had rolled it back, further denting the image of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)-led coalition government’s transparency and good governance claims.

They said Bukhari, who comes from a business background works like the typical businessman having has his own understanding of running the finances of the State.

“He wants to keep everybody happy and take everyone along,” the sources said. “He doesn’t want to get into confrontation with the strong and well-connected contractor mafia.”

They said by rolling back the PAO system, Bukhari had undone one good work done by his predecessor.

The contractors had for a week locked the Government Engineering Complex at Rajbagh while the government watched as a mute spectator.

The closure of the Engineering Complex, which houses the vital departments of Chief Engineers of PHE, I&FC, PMGSY and R&B, had left the common people to suffer as all the works had come to the sudden halt.

The Kashmir-based contractors, who padlocked all gates of the Engineering Complex on February 27, were protesting to press the government to fulfill their demands.

The contractors under the banner of J&K Contractors Coordination Committee (JKCCC) supported by another contractors union, Hot-mix Plant Owners Association (HPOA), demanded deferment of PAO system till their pending bills of around Rs 700 crore were cleared.

The sources said one of the reasons why Drabu was removed was that he did not get along well with the Minister for Public Works, Naeem Akhtar, who is considered to be close to Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti and someone whose counsel she seeks from time-to-time.

The sources said sometime back Drabu had a heated argument with Akhtar over the issue of having PAO system in place.

While Drabu was for implementing the PAO system from January 2018, Akhtar opposed it saying that the new system would not be acceptable to the contractors and result in hitting the development activities in the State.

The Public Works department has failed to complete several developmental works like the construction of a 3-km Jehangir Chowk-Rambagh flyover for the past three years and Akhtar has faced embarrassment after the government revised deadlines several times.

The sources said Bukhari was assigned the additional portfolio of Finance after Akhtar strongly recommended his name to the chief minister as he gets along well with Bukhari unlike Drabu.

By having a last laugh in his fight with Drabu and earning the trust of Bukhari, who like Drabu is considered to be close to New Delhi, Akhtar has killed two birds with one stone.

The sources said there was a lot of mess in the Finance department which had even been communicated to Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, who just a day after keeping the portfolio with herself gave it to Bukhari.

Referring to the PAO system, Drabu had earlier said that there was a need to design the system in such a way that it meets the future requirements and should be functionally aligned rather than geographically demarcated.

Meanwhile, opposition National Conference (NC) has also questioned whether his keenness in implementing the PAO system was a reason for Drabu’s sacking as the finance minister.

NC Provisional President Kashmir, Nasir Aslam Wani in a statement said, “It was now evident beyond an iota of doubt that the reasons for his removal were different and the rollback of the PAO reform provides a major clue.”

Stressing that the sudden and arbitrary rollback of the PAO reform brought in by the J&K government just last month through the Assembly raises a huge red flag, Wani said, “It seems the PAO system was a reason for Drabu’s removal and the chief minister needs to be held to account – how can a reform that her government pushed through the legislature just a month or so ago suddenly become untouchable and unacceptable.”

The NC leader said there were apprehensions that the reforms were being rolled back to benefit some particular individuals and players, indicating a collusion with the State government.

He said this was a serious charge that needed to be probed independently.

“This is a smoking gun without a doubt and Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti needs to answer,” Wani said. “PDP has been in power for almost three years now and they are still in their experimentation mode.”

He said the inherent instability and state of chaos perpetuated by the PDP-BJP coalition government had cost the State enormously in terms of missed opportunities of growth and development.

“It is also a curious case in how the new Finance Minister didn’t wait even a day before rolling back the PAO system on taking charge,” Wani said. “Something seems to be going on behind the scenes and needs to be investigated.”

He said for nearly two years, the PDP-BJP government persecuted the contractors on account of these changes and ended up accumulating an unpaid bill of nearly Rs 700 crores.

“If the PAO system was bad to start with, why were these bills allowed to accumulate? What was the reason to bring in the PAO system and what is the reason to roll it back? These are critical questions the CM needs to answer,” he said.

Minster for Finance, Altaf Bukhari did not respond to repeated calls of Kashmir Post.

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