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A tale of two private members’ bills

Updated October 11, 2017

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ISLAMABAD: It is never easy to get a private member’s bill passed from the National Assembly. But on Tuesday, two pieces of legislation introduced by women lawmakers were held up on extremely flimsy grounds, causing uproar in the house.

While a rare agreement between women on both sides led to the passage of the Transplantation of Human Organs and Tissues (Amendment) Bill 2017 – introduced by Kishwar Zehra of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the long-delayed Acid and Burn Crime Bill 2017 piloted by the ruling party’s Marvi Memon, was deferred for a fifth time.

The passed bill envisages the creation of a donor column on identity cards and driving licenses, indicating that the person wishes to donate their organs in case of their death. The field will be voluntary and aims to allow doctors to use organs from those killed in accidents to save the lives of ailing patients.

When Ms Zehra moved the bill, Minister of State for Inter-Provincial Coordination Dr Darshan – while acknowledging the relevance and usefulness of the amendment – asked her to withdraw it because a similar government bill was also in the offing.

Opposition-sponsored bill passed amid rare bipartisan agreement; govt member’s long-delayed law deferred due to ministers’ absence

The MQM lawmaker would have none of it. “This bill has been unanimously cleared by two separate standing committees; cabinet division and health. Why would I withdraw it now?”

This prompted Deputy Speaker Murtaza Abbasi to ask Dr Darshan – who was ostensibly speaking on behalf of the health division – point blank whether he opposed the bill.

“I’m not opposed to it, but it would be best if the member were to withdraw it herself. All her concerns and more will be addressed by the government bill. Our bill is with the law ministry and will soon be laid before the house,” he insisted.

This did not go down well with the opposition, which alleged that such delays were caused at the behest of the illegal organ transplant mafia. Dr Darshan countered by claiming that the current government had cracked down on illegal transplants.

MQM’s Sajid Ahmed added to the confusion when he suggested that the bill be sent to a standing committee for reconsideration. This was immediately opposed by Ms Zehra, who called on the state minister to prove that incidence of illegal organ transplant had declined. “The world is saying that right now, Pakistan is the cheapest black market for human organs,” she insisted.

Even MQM’s Sheikh Salahuddin tried to suggest that the government and private member’s bill be merged, which prompted Ms Zehra to threaten a walkout.

The deputy speaker tried to remind the house that the bill was up for passage, not to be sent to committee. But the deal was sealed when Marvi Memon voiced her support for the bill across party lines.

“If a private member’s bill – be it from government or opposition benches – comes first, that is the one that should be passed,” she demanded.

She also praised the previous regime, saying that while she had distanced herself from her former party, even she had to acknowledge that private members’ legislation was entertained when the PPP was in power.

Former speaker Fehmida Mirza also voiced her support for the MQM legislator’s bill, praising her efforts and suggesting that the government should add their provisions to this bill, instead of doing it the other way round.

This seemed to be acceptable to Dr Darshan, and the bill was consequently passed without any further debate.

But when Ms Memon’s much-delayed Acid and Burn Crime Bill 2017 was tabled for passage, the relevant minister was nowhere to be found.

She recalled how the bill, which sought to reinforce existing legislation passed by the previous government, had been pending for a long time. Eager to get things done, she welcomed all amendments suggested by the opposition and urged the assembly to pass the law.

In the absence of someone who could respond, Sheikh Aftab Ahmed, who is the government’s go-to man for everything, rushed to his seat and quickly asked the deputy speaker to defer the business because he hadn’t read the bill. He also pointed out that an amendment was also moved by Naveed Qamar, who was not present in the house, and asked for the bill to be deferred.

Ms Memon, however, was livid. “It is parliamentary procedure that the government should read the bills that are laid. This is the fourth time this bill is being laid before the house. It is my bill and I accept the opposition’s amendments. I am part of the government; the [ministers] have nothing to do with this. When I have no objections, why can’t it be passed? This is what the procedure is and I will not let you deviate from it,” she thundered.

But unable to contend with Ms Memon’s aggressive tone, the deputy speaker shut her down, saying that having the concerned ministry’s point of view was necessary before passing the bill.

Published in Dawn, October 11th, 2017