In early March the world hung in limbo. Coronavirus had begun to run through much of Eurasia, and threatened the rest of the world. Nations looked at each other expectantly, not knowing exactly what to do to counter this onslaught. From Sweden’s brazen overconfidence in ‘herd immunity’ to China’s dystopian lockdowns, the world did whatever it could and hoped it was enough.
The Prime Minister’s Corona Relief Tigers Force (CRTF) was born out of this uncertainty; it was to be a mechanism to aid the government in curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus. Facing the possibility of months-long lockdowns and mass economic fallout, having a volunteer force ready to shore up the government’s numbers seemed like a reasonable idea.
Since then, much has evolved about the situation the force was formed to address: Pakistan escaped the worst, and lockdowns were gradually lifted. Just as the force was beginning to take shape, however, its purpose was snatched away from it.
Here is where the problems begin.
Initially created as a volunteer force to aid the government in relief efforts at the peak of the pandemic, the Tigers Force soon became a recurring actor to be cited as a supplement to various governmental projects—from dealing with climate change and locust swarms, to, now, overseeing food prices in local markets to counter artificial inflation.
This expansion in the force’s role rang alarm bells across the country—political parties have had volunteer forces before, but none have been ever used as the extension of the state, nor given official responsibilities.
As the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government’s state-endorsed youth volunteer force, comprising more than a million members, the Tigers Force eludes any legally defined status—a fact that was quickly spotted. Responding to criticism by media and political opposition, the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister (SAPM) on Youth Affairs Usman Dar continues to reiterate the Tigers Force’s exemplary devotion to the country and cite its willingness to work without greed or monetary compensation.
“Tigers Force is the name of an ideology. Its members embody the national spirit and a sense of duty,” he maintains.
How well do these justifications hold, then, as the Tigers Force’s ever-expanding responsibilities continue to invite the wariness of critics, including the opposition, legal and economic experts, medical professionals, traders—and the Tiger Force itself?
More significantly, to what extent can an unpaid, extra-legal force backed by a singular political party represent the interests of an entire country?
The force awakens
Inductions to the volunteer force started on 31st March 2020, with students, young doctors and other professionals registering to help carry out various COVID-19 relief activities. These included ration distribution to areas under lockdown, implementation of governmental guidelines for prayers during Ramazan, overseeing the implementation of standard operating procedures (SOPs) like social distancing and observing fixed market timings, and generating awareness regarding the virus to the larger public.
Prime Minister Imran Khan invites the youth to help with COVID-19 relief efforts by joining the Tigers Force.
The CRTF was first tested by the federal government in Sialkot—Usman Dar’s home district—and became formally operational in Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Balochistan by May. Guidelines were issued by the Prime Minister to provincial chief ministers and chief secretaries to mobilise the force at district, tehsil and union council levels. It was later decided that district administrations and deputy commissioners’ offices would engage the force in carrying out its monitoring duties.
Medical professionals were also recruited into the Force for carrying out specialised tasks, such as working for the government’s tele-health initiative to give patients medical advice over phone.
Addressing the volunteer force alongside the Prime Minister on 4th May, SAPM on Health Dr Zafar Mirza said: “We sent these medical professionals a special questionnaire and on the basis of their answers and our own thinking, the government will seek their help in effective implementation of SOPs and social distancing steps and specialised monitoring of quarantine and isolation centres.”
A month after Tigers Force’s formation, it had yet to be deployed in any mass operation.
Eventually, the CRTF was assigned additional responsibilities to do with tree plantation drives, anti-dengue and anti-polio campaigns, locust surveillance, traffic management, flood prevention and control, as well as other administrative areas lacking human resource.
In a televised address to the CRTF on 5th June, the Prime Minister emphasised on these various responsibilities. “You have to protect our people and help the vulnerable […] we will keep making you aware of what your duties are,” he said to the Tiger Force.
9th August was celebrated as Tiger Force Day, with the CRTF participating in an extensive tree plantation drive as part of the government’s Clean and Green Pakistan Campaign, under which 10 billion trees are to be planted.
The tree plantation drive is where CRTF was seen to be most active, with its social media dominated by images of members planting saplings.
On 11th October, to much controversy, it was announced that the Tiger Force would also carry out the responsibility of checking the prices of food and essential health items in local markets. This was announced amid the government’s renewed commitment to deal with the country’s fraught economic situation through the effective utilisation of all available resources.
In a joint news conference on 14th October with the Minister for National Food Security and Research Fakhar Imam and Minister for Industries and Production Hammad Azhar, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told the media: “The federal government is cognisant and serious in bringing stability to the prices. We will take all required fiscal, financial or administrative measures to stabilise the prices.”
Addressing questions about the criticism on the decision to give the CRTF a role in checking prices, he clarified that the volunteers would only monitor the ground situation and not actually control pricing, adding that government officials misrepresented facts by giving “all is well” reports. The Tiger Force would be expected to outperform officials in this regard.
The confusion over the force’s actual role and powers only continued to grow, with the government’s political opposition stoking public critique.
On 17th October, Prime Minister Imran Khan met CRTF members at the Tigers Force Convention in Islamabad. There, he also clarified that Tigers Force members only have observational authority, while actionable changes would be left to the relevant authorities. He also announced the launch of an online portal developed by the government to facilitate this process.
In a press conference a day earlier, the SAPM Youth Affairs Usman Dar had explained that the portal would enable the CRTF to report incidents of hoarding, artificial price hike and non-display of the official rate lists in markets of their respective union councils through Geotagging technology.
The portal—accessible at tigerforce.gov.pk— has been questioned for its official governmental status, despite the Tigers Force being a volunteer force.
“No legal grounds”
The legitimacy of the Corona Relief Tigers Force as an authoritative body overseeing governmental duties has been put to question by critics since its inception.
The concerns are apparent; it is legal for a government official to forcibly carry out inspections of a property, yet the same action becomes illegal if anyone else does it without legal backing.
Similarly, police enforcing lockdowns under official orders is legal; a volunteer force doing so is ‘unlawful detention’ and can even constitute kidnapping.
Pakistan People Party (PPP)’s Senator Sherry Rehman called the Tiger Force a “bad idea” on Twitter, stating that “the federation/provinces must use union councils, DCs, mohallah committees, BISP data to disburse funds to the poorest institutionally” instead of politically charged “party-based volunteers.”
After the announcement of the CRTF’s price-checking responsibility on 14th October, PPP Senator Raza Rabbani likened the development to “fascism.”
“The state apparatus has been put in cold storage and the Tiger Force has been asked to control the prices. This is a joke….. Tiger Force has no legal sanction to take any action or act on behalf of the state,” said Mr Rabbani. He further stated that the government must realize that it is unacceptable in a democracy for party functionaries and volunteers to act on behalf of the state.
On 17th October, Qaumi Watan Party chairman Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao shared similar views. “It’s the responsibility of the district administrations to have a check on the prices of daily use commodities. The Tiger Force volunteers have no legal authority to visit markets for checking prices. The exercise will cause resentment among business community,” he warned.
The Tiger Force has been criticized by most opposition parties, notably the recently formed Pakistan Democratic Movement, an 11-party alliance that includes Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Jamiat Ulema-e Islam (F) (JUI-F) and PPP.
Lack of transparency
The legal status of the Corona Relief Tiger Force is of concern to most commentators. It is noted that the CRTF lacks governmental status, yet enjoys the patronage of the state. This is most visible in the official government .gov URL assigned to the Tiger Force’s online portal.
The Tigers Force portal describes its mission as follows: “Prime Ministers Tiger Force aims to successfully achieve and execute the government’s plans and goals to move forward toward its Mission. This force is a very important part of the government because it will take on the emerging challenges and will help formulate the strategic plan to counter these challenges.” [Emphasis added.]
The description explicitly claims the Force to be a “part of the government,” when the Tiger Force is not a legal part of any branch of government.
This is also at odds with the description of the CRTF on the website of the Prime Minister’s Office, which states: “Corona Relief Tigers Force is a volunteer task force that has been formed by the government of Pakistan to voluntarily work for providing the relief to the people/areas affected by the lockdowns.”
The Tigers Force online portal, which can be accessed by registered CRTF members through the website as well as online app, consists of a large interactive map that displays all geotagged locations marked by CRTF members. The map can be navigated via the various categories displayed on the side, including “Market,” “Religious related,” and “Price Control.” However, the lack of clear descriptions on the website renders the map difficult to interpret by regular citizens. Moreover, many of the geotagged locations marked by CRTF members do not match the label they are assigned, casting doubt on the authenticity of the data displayed on the map. While fancy in its appearance, the complex display of the data leaves little room for transparent interpretation.
Need for accountability
Owing to the various contradictory and vague statements used to define the Tigers Force, and its lack of any legal status, there is little public knowledge of the existing infrastructure of the body. While governmental claims assure regulatory action against those who misuse their position, the lack of concretely defined oversight measures casts the CRTF into controversy.
Addressing similar concerns posed by critics, SAPM Usman Dar told a media publication: “The law will take its course if anyone of them is found involved in any illegal activity … their membership [from the Tiger Force] will be revoked.”
Since the formation of the CRTF, there have been a few incidents reported against the behaviour of the force.
In September, a Tiger Force member was held in Jhelum for allegedly harassing a doctor by recording videos of her at her workplace.
Traders vs Tiger Force
Following the addition of price-checking to the Tigers Force’s bucket of responsibilities, many successes have been reported by the government in exposing incidents of illegal hoarding and price-hiking. These successes have been given ample media coverage, and are also routinely shared on the Tigers Force’s official social media.
However, there are also been incidents of traders expressing discontent at price-checking activities conducted by the Tiger Force.
In Mohmand, traders blocked the Bajaur-Peshawar Highway on 16th October in a protest against daily checking. According to a media report, the Ghalanai Bazaar Union staged the protest against joint raids conducted by administration officers and CRTF members. The union’s president insisted that the Tigers Force had no legal authority to be conducting these checks and disrupting business.
Tigers Force demands respect
The increasing responsibilities on the Tigers Force have not been taken kindly by the members themselves. On 15th October, members of the CRTF staged a protest outside Press Club Lahore to demand legal cover from the government, and the respect that accompanies legitimacy.
In recent incidents, Tigers Force members have met resistance by various groups against their vetting, while the lack of legal authority granted to them renders their efforts redundant. The lack of any monetary incentive from the government is also a demoralizing factor for the multitudes of young professionals who are pouring their labour into heavy governmental responsibilities.
For whom the tigers roar
The Prime Minister’s Corona Relief Tiger Force harkens back to “Imran’s Tigers,” the force of volunteers Prime Minister Imran Khan credits for helping him build Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital in 1992. The same year, the team Imran Khan led to win the 1992 Cricket World Cup was referred to as “Imran’s cornered tigers.” The pattern that emerges here exemplifies the Prime Minister’s personal investment in teams of young “tigers” he can fondly lead.
PTI counters any criticism of CRTF with rhetoric of patriotic struggle and nationhood attached to all facets of the volunteer force. Reference to the self-less jihad conducted for the greater good of Pakistan by its youth is the primary defence offered by government officials against any critique levelled toward the Tiger Force, leaving little room for objection
Prime Minister Imran Khan himself gave credence to this when he first announced the role this force is to play in Pakistan. “The Corona Tiger Force… will be organized to do jihad against the suffering caused by this pandemic,” he tweeted early April.
While the responsibilities undertaken by youth across Pakistan to embody the ideology of duty and national spirit is praiseworthy, critique towards the institutional intent and procedure behind the Tigers Force is a right of citizens in a democracy.
The explicitly partisan patronship of the Tiger Force makes clear that the CRTF has not been imagined as a neutral volunteer force aiding the government in its activities. The political opposition’s wariness towards this force stems from the immensity and overreach of the CRTF, which appears a valid reaction towards a political opponent.
Precedents in Pakistan’s political history already define the extremities of unchecked party power. Partisan volunteer forces of a scale this immense carry exploitative potential, leaving room for corrupt and illegal practices like extortion and blackmail. The availability of a support-base this strong and far-reaching, with official governmental support, is also likely to affect election-related activities in the near future. Additionally, the surveillance capacity of the force for purposes beyond coronavirus-related measures is also of public concern.
The merits and unyielding efforts of the Prime Minister’s Corona Relief Tigers Force notwithstanding, the need of the hour must be acknowledged by the present government. To rebut further criticism from political opponents and the public at large, the legal parameters of the CRTF must be immediately and clearly defined. Not doing so promises to damage the credibility of the government not only for critics and opponents, but for the Tigers themselves. The country’s future depends on its youth. The youth cannot afford to be exploited any longer.