ISLAMABAD: Of the advisers and special assistants to the prime minister, Dr Zafar Mirza and Tania S Aidrus, who have exited the federal cabinet, figured among the real technocrats on health and digital Pakistan respectively.
Knowledgeable officials told The News that Ms Aidrus was removed for purely political reasons while Dr Mirza had to go largely because of performance. Ms Aidrus, a Canadian national by birth and having permanent residency in Singapore, was Jahangir Tareen’s find and prodigy. He had head-hunted her and introduced her to Prime Minister Imran Khan, who tasked her to spearhead the “Digital Pakistan” vision of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
Dr Mirza and Ms Aidrus refused to give their versions when contacted by The News. Ms Aidrus attended the call to her cell phone and referred this correspondent to her “communication manager” Amna Zafar for version. She also sent the cell number of Ms Zafar, who, while responding to a Whatsapp message, promised to call back shortly, but didn’t. Dr Mirza’s cell phone remained unattended. He chose not to reply to the Whatsapp message that he, however, read as it landed with him. Both were told that this reporter wanted to talk to them about their exit as the special assistants. The News waited for more than 24 hours for their reactions but they preferred to keep quiet.
In her famous video clip that circulated everywhere after her sacking, Ms Aidrus herself disclosed that Tareen brought her in Pakistan and introduced her to the premier. On the same occasion, she attributed a remark to Imran Khan that he made during her first meeting with him: don’t get worried;
Pakistan has too many problems.
In the first publicly known meeting on the Digital Pakistan initiative, the premier showered praise on her and lauded her decision to quit a senior position in Google, forgoing a hefty salary package, and said he “can’t even count zeros of the pay she was getting at Google”.
Insiders say that from day one influential bureaucrats were not supportive or receptive to Ms Aidrus since she was considered from the “Tareen camp”. In fact, one of them had strictly asked her never to visit his office, an official told this correspondent.
He said Ms Aidrus’ sidelining was a foregone conclusion once Tareen fell out with the prime minister and his key aides. Tareen had openly stated that the principal secretary to the prime minister caused misunderstandings between the two.
The COVID-19 pandemic delayed Ms Aidrus’ departure since she was part of the technical team working on data analysis on coronavirus under Dr Faisal Sultan, the CEO of Shaukat Khanum Hospital. It was the same data, which was discussed in the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) on a daily basis.
The official said that political and bureaucratic wrangling never allowed Ms Aidrus to take off with her plans. She hardly got government resources, staff or independent office to start the Digital Pakistan initiative. “At best, the Digital Pakistan conceived by the premier and Tania Aidrus was still born.”
Experts point out that the company, Digital Foundation Pakistan, registered by Ms Aidrus with the Security Exchange Commission of Pakistan under Section 42, was not a reason for her removal since it posed no conflict of interest. They say this argument has been given to mask the real cause of her removal – the Tareen connection. There are many section 42 companies in several ministries, which try to achieve the development objective through private public partnership, officials said.
In fact, Tareen is pioneer of section 42 companies (also called NGOs), which were set up by him during Pervez Musharraf/Shaukat Aziz regime. He launched dozens of such nonprofit organizations with a public private partnership approach. Many like AHAN (Aik Hunar, Aik Nagar), Gem and Jewelry Company, Small Arms Company, Pakistan Furniture Company, Horticulture Company etc., still exist. Being chair or member of a nonprofit to achieve development objectives is no conflict of interest in the view of experts.
The issue of Dr Mirza is quite complex. The coronavirus also delayed his departure. It had been decided to sack him in February 2020, an informed official claimed.
A dossier on Dr Mirza was prepared for the prime minister’s office by an intelligence agency, citing poor performance, nepotism, (appointing junior officers to senior positions), having a brigade of donor-funded advisers in the health ministry. His dysfunctional relationship with bureaucracy in the health ministry was highlighted in the document.
A whopping amount of Rs11 billion of development funds allocated for the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS), Federal Government Services Hospital and health facilities of the Islamabad Capital Territory lapsed in the 2019-2020 financial year. The government also faced embarrassment because of the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council imbroglio. The nonfunctional Islamabad Health Regulatory Authority, which failed to be established despite the lapse of two years, was also cited as a reason for his sacking. The Prime Ministers Task Force headed by Dr Nausherwan Burki also never got along with Dr Mirza, the official said.
He said Dr Mirza stood marginalised due to the NCOC as far as key decisions pertaining to COVID-19 were concerned. His handling of critical issues, relating to drug pricing and import of medicines from India, were also quoted as key components of the charge sheet against him.
Ms Aidrus and Dr Mirza resigned from the Google and World Health Organisation (WHO) respectively after assuming high offices in Pakistan. Before his appointment, Dr Mirza was serving at the post of Director Health System Development at WHO’s Office for Eastern Mediterranean Region (EMRO) based in Cairo, Egypt. The post portfolio covered universal health coverage, primary healthcare, health governance and financing, health workforce development, integrated health service delivery, pharmaceuticals and health technologies.