This article was published in Dawn on November 24, 2022 and is available at the following link
‘TOSHAKHANA’ — the local definition of the state treasury where gifts received by state officials are deposited — was not a very familiar term in our political discourse. But it has suddenly sprung up in the media and is being passionately debated everywhere — from TV talk shows to political rallies to courtrooms. It seems that the ongoing debate about the propriety of senior state officials taking home expensive gifts, received by them, after paying a nominal ‘retention amount’ on the apparently discounted value assessed by government functionaries, and then selling them in the open market at a huge premium, pocketing the profit, has finally caught the public’s attention, and is likely to impact the reputation and political fortunes of the recipients.
Although the practice of personally benefiting from the Toshakhana is almost as old as the country itself, and not confined to Pakistan, the details of such transactions here had been shrouded in thick layers of secrecy until a journalist, taking advantage of the right to information law, sought details of gifts received and retained by then prime minister Imran Khan about two years ago. The request was declined and the reason given by several ministers in the media for not disclosing the information was that it could adversely impact our relations with the states which gave the gifts, although identification of these countries was not one of the details requested.
A complaint was lodged with the Federal Information Commission against the refusal of the Cabinet Division as per the remedy provided in the RTI Act. The commission upheld the right of the requesting party to receive the requested information and directed the Cabinet Division to provide the same. The government, correctly sensing that too much political capital (of the PM at the time) was at stake, did not act. The requesting party filed a petition in the high court seeking enforcement of the commission’s order.
The Islamabad High Court directed the government in April 2022 to provide the requested information but before the government could provide it or, in a likely scenario, file an appeal before the Supreme Court contesting the Islamabad High Court order, the Imran Khan government was replaced by a PML-N-led dispensation.
It isn’t fair to single out Imran Khan and not make details of gifts received by other high officials public.
In the meantime, the information was leaked to the media that prime minister Imran Khan had not only retained some expensive gifts given to him by the Saudi crown prince by paying a nominal amount, according to the rules, but had also sold those gifts, pocketing a hefty profit. Imran Khan admitted he did sell the gifts at a premium and spent the money so earned on constructing an approach road to his Banigala residence, which, according to him, also benefited other residents of the area. His claim about spending the money on the construction of the road, however, remained unverified.
Taking advantage of the disclosure and the then prime minister’s admission, a parallel effort was initiated by certain MNAs by filing a reference with the Speaker of the National Assembly, seeking his disqualification because, according to the reference, Imran Khan had failed to declare the earned money in his statement of assets and liabilities, which each legislator has to annually submit to the Election Commission of Pakistan. The ECP proceedings on the reference ended in the disqualification of Imran Khan on Oct 21, 2022, under Article 63(1)(p) of the Constitution and Sections 137, 167 and 173 of the Elections Act, 2017, for “concealing the material facts by not disclosing the details of gifts in statement of his assets and liabilities for the year 2018-19 nor accounting for the sale proceed”.
The elusive details of the gifts received by Imran Khan as prime minister were finally made public in the ECP order, according to which he had received 160 gifts during three financial years, from 2018 to 2021. He deposited 52 gifts in the Toshakhana, having an assessed value of Rs32.5 million or 3.63 per cent of the total value of all gifts. He retained 55 gifts valued at Rs30,000 or less for each gift, having a total value of Rs0.78m, which translates to less than 0.5pc of the total value of gifts. He retained gifts worth 95.84pc or Rs141.89m of the total value of all gifts by paying a retention amount of Rs37.88m.
Although Imran Khan had increased the retention amount from 20pc to 50pc of the assessed value, he did so after retaining some of the most expensive gifts at a rate of 20pc. This is why the average retention amount paid by him on all gifts over a period of about three years works out to be just 27pc. He made a cool profit of Rs104.78m even if we compute it on the basis of the government-assessed value, which is generally on the lower side of the market price. One must add that all these transactions of gifts apparently followed the government procedure for acceptance and disposal of gifts notified on Dec 18, 2018. What he did with the gifts after taking them from the Toshakhana, and whether there were deficiencies in his declarations, is another matter.
It is, however, not fair to single out Imran Khan and not make details of gifts received by other high officials, whether politicians, civil/military officials or judges, public. It is only fair to demand that the federal government declare similar details of gifts received by all such officials in the past.
These disclosures have highlighted the urgent need to reform the Toshakhana procedure. Since these gifts are given to state officials, and almost invariably reciprocated at state expense, it is fair to demand that all gifts received by high officials should be deposited in the Toshakhana and a more thoughtful policy adopted for their disposal through, for example, open auction, using the proceeds for public welfare.