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ISLAMABAD: Days after the prime minister’s directions to his cabinet members to accord priority to parliamentary business after Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani threatened to resign in protest against what he called efforts to demean the upper house of parliament, absence of ministers and lack of responses to questions put by Senators prompted the chairman to say on Wednesday that he was ready if the government wanted to repeat Friday’s episode.

During the question hour, Mr Rabbani became angry to see that no response to a question already deferred thrice earlier had been given. Through his question Farhatullah Babar had sought to know the details of pension and other benefits admissible to officers of the rank of major general and above of the Pakistan Army, Navy and Air Force on their retirement.

A brief and written answer from Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, who was not present in the house, merely said the information was being collected and would be provided as soon as it was received.

The information had been sought after reports suggested that former army chief retired General Raheel Sharif had been allotted 90 acres of agriculture land along Bedian road in Lahore and the ISPR’s clarification that there was nothing unusual in the allotment.

“What is the information being collected? This is a question pertaining to a general policy and they do not have an answer to that,” Mr Rabbani remarked. He addressed Parliamentary Affairs Minister Sheikh Aftab Ahmad, who was responding on behalf of the defence minister, and said that if the government wanted a repeat of Friday’s episode he was ready for it.

Minister of State for Interior Baleeghur Rehman said: “We do not want it” and observed that things were improving. Mr Rabbani, however, pointed out that responses to several questions pertaining to his ministry, including the one about perks and privileges of the Nadra chairman, had also not been received.

Another question which did not receive a reply was “whether it is a fact that the employees and pensioners of the Heavy Mechanical Complex, Taxila, are not being paid their salaries and pensions; if so, the reasons thereof indicating also the number of affected employees and pensioners and the time since which they have not been paid their salaries and pensions; and (b) the steps being taken by the government to pay salaries and pensions to the said employees?”. The question had been asked by Chaudhry Tanvir Khan of PML-N.

“Is this classified information? What should I do? Why should I not suspend the question hour?” an angry Mr Rabbani asked. He directed chairman of the senate’s standing committee on rules, procedures and privileges Jehanzaib Jamaldini to summon the defence secretary and ask him why replies were not being submitted.

Soon after this, Azam Swati’s question about the number of persons deputed for tree plantation, looking after flower beds or other related work in Islamabad was responded to and the house was informed that 972 gardeners were working in the horticulture branch of the Metropolitan Corporation, Islamabad.

The Senate chairman addressed Mr Swati and said: “You are lucky that your question has been answered.” Members of the house thumped their desks at this. Mr Rabbani, however, said the reply had been received as it pertained to information about gardeners.

Absence of the Kashmir affairs minister also annoyed the chairman who said they did not read the prime minister’s letter carefully, which talked of giving priority to parliamentary business. He was also irked by the absence of the members whose questions had to be deferred because they were absent. He said he was evolving a procedure under which the absence of members with their questions on agenda would face penalty.

He said question hour was the most important part of the parliamentary proceedings.

Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2017