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Debate deficit in budget sessions

Updated July 01, 2019

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The narrow window of time to discuss and adjust the budget proposals can be blamed for the limited interaction. — DawnNewsTV/File
The narrow window of time to discuss and adjust the budget proposals can be blamed for the limited interaction. — DawnNewsTV/File

WHEN it came to participation in the budget sessions, members of the provincial assembly in Khyber Pakhuntkhwa proved themselves to be better driven than their counterparts in the other three provinces as well those in the National Assembly. However, it is not a reflection on the quality of debate in the KP Assembly.

It is for the sociologists to try to explain the diversity in the behaviour patterns of lawmakers in different provinces, but it does shine some light on the evolving parameters of what is still a young democracy in Pakistan. The democratisation of economic policy-making is considered crucial to achieving targets like equitable sharing of the tax burden, inclusion of people in the economic mainstream, and better delivery of public goods and services to the majority.

“Clearly, no one has a perfect set of solutions to stem the current economic slide in Pakistan. It will, however, not hurt if the base of economic decision-making is widened in search of better alternative options. And there is no better place than the floor of the house to debate policy options,” an economist commented from Lahore.

The narrow window of time to discuss and adjust the budget proposals, covering almost all sectors of the economy along with the Finance Bill, can partially be blamed for the limited interaction before the exercise is rushed to pass the budget within the stipulated time. The Rules of Business require all budgets (national and provincial) to be passed before the start of the fiscal year on July 1. This year the federal budget was presented on June 11 and passed on June 28, the last working day of the fiscal year. This was followed by Sindh and Punjab on June 14, and Balochistan and KP on June 18. KP and Punjab budgets were passed on June 26, and those of Sindh and Balochistan on June 27.

The narrow window of time to discuss and adjust the budget proposals can partially be blamed for the limited interaction

“It is understandable why the voting process cannot be extended to facilitate a more fulfilling debate on budget at both tiers of governance, but the presentation dates of budget can always be pulled back by a month or two to allow lawmakers sufficient time to digest the proposals and suggest amendments to make most of whatever little options and resources are at their disposal,” commented Amin Eijaz, of the Centre for Peace and Development Initiative, from Islamabad when reached for comments.

“After watching budget sessions closely for a decade, it is hard to trust the system to evolve in the manner that may be more responsive to people’s needs. The modus operandi of budget sessions seems frozen in time. The actors change, but the theatrics and the script continue irrespective of the party in power. The while politics dominate the scene, with MNAs and MPAs taking partisan position with little or no scope for open discussion,” another consultant familiar with the proceedings in the National Assembly said.

“Most MNAs don’t even bother to untie the ribbon on neatly packed budget documents months after the budget sessions end”, he added.

As budgets at state and sub-state levels are passed before the cut-off date of June 30, business houses remain busy deciphering signals in the policy document with a seat reserved for a tax consultant on the table. The ordinary people are also adjusting family budgets to make ends meet as economic fallouts of PTI government’s policy choices unfold. It, therefore, seemed relevant to track and gauge the involvement of MNAs/MPAs in the budget exercise that essentially defines and determines the direction of the future over the year ahead, if not beyond.

Unfortunately, the attitude of the elected representatives towards budget is not sufficiently serious. “I will be pleasantly surprised if five per cent of all elected representatives can explain the budgetary priorities or the basic strategy,” an informed observer said.

“For most lawmakers, budget sessions are dull, pointless debating exercises about a voluminous document they scantly understand,” commented an expert working for an NGO that targets to promote the process of meaningful debate on complex economic issues.

Comparatively, members of the four provincial assemblies fared better than their federal counterparts in the National Assembly in terms of average level of participation in budget sessions. Amongst the provinces, KP assembly members acted most responsibly, followed by Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan. Based on daily assembly reports of Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen), on an average about 49pc MPAs attended budget sessions in KP compared to 38pc in Sindh, 36pc in Punjab and 32pc in Balochistan.

The members did, however, show up in bigger numbers to pass the budget or if their party needed them in the House at any given time. This is borne out by some interesting numbers related to the National Assembly where only 29pc members participated in the overall discussion. According to Fafen daily report, a total of 88 MNAs were present in the House when the concluding session began. There were 201 members in attendance when the session ended after about eight hours. At the time of voting, however, there were 322 members present among whom 176 were on the Treasury bench and 146 were on the other side of the aisle.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, July 1st, 2019