ISLAMABAD: The opposition in the Senate on Monday thwarted a move to amend a constitutional provision that bars any reduction in previous year’s share of the provinces in the National Finance Commission (NFC) Award, following a heated debate on the issue.
The house by a 25-17 majority vote disallowed leave to introduce a bill seeking to amend Article 160 (3A) of the Constitution to Barrister Muhammad Ali Saif of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM).
Article 160 (3A) in its present form reads: “The share of the Provinces in each Award of National Finance Commission shall not be less than the share given to the Provinces in the previous Award.”
Another highlight of the day was the talk of presidential system by a minister — an idea opposed by the opposition with equal force.
Minister for Industries Hammad Azhar, while opposing a bill seeking to bind the National Assembly to accept at least 20 per cent recommendations on a money bill sent by the Senate, said this was a basic principle of the parliamentary system [that recommendations on money bill are not binding]. “Let us then bring presidential system,” he remarked.
Opposition in Senate takes on minister for talking about presidential system
Barrister Saif faced severe criticism after he sought to amend the constitutional provision for allocations on the basis of needs and liabilities of the provinces. He was of the opinion that Article 160 (3A) was against the principle of equitable and fair distribution of resources and creating horizontal fiscal imbalance. He asked the Senate chairman to convene a session of the Committee of the Whole to thoroughly debate the proposal.
Senator Mushtaq Ahmad of the Jamaat-i-Islami was the first to oppose the idea, saying he viewed the move dangerous for the federation. He said the Centre was already kneeling on the neck of the provinces and described the proposed bill as a suicide attack on the constitutional scheme of the NFC Award.
He said the government needed to restructure the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR), besides reducing its expenses instead of trying to usurp the rights of the provinces. He said the Centre was yet to pay Rs500 billion net hydel profit to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Strongly opposing Saif Ali’s constitutional amendment bill, parliamentary leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in the Senate Sherry Rehman said: “It is the provinces’ tax collection that is running Pakistan, not the federation which is complaining about ‘giving away its resources’ to the provinces. This is a backdoor attack on the federation’s unity and stability. Have people not seen the history of the country, where Pakistan broke because of such attacks on provinces’ rights?”
She added: “The 1973 Constitution, 18th Amendment and this formula have gone through a mature democratic process. Don’t attack parliament and its constitution this way. These attacks are coming from the treasury bench. When they don’t like the parliamentary system, one speaker asks to undo the social contract between the provinces and the federation, while another says bring in the presidential system.
“This is Pakistan’s basic social contract which keeps the country and the provinces together. This is a federation. One thing keeps us bonded together, and that is our Constitution. But now there are efforts to change this which has made their dubious aims clear. We will not allow this.
“Why is there a need to extract more money from the provinces? Because they can’t do basic things like even maintaining records of tax collection; the record-breaking increase in public debt and liabilities. The federal government is staggering in its incompetence and inability to run the country. They are running on unprecedented debt. No government in the past 73 years has taken on additional debt of Rs619 billion a month, every month. But this government has set a new record; over the past 630 days, the federal government has taken an average of Rs20bn of additional debt a day, every single day.”
Ms Rehman said the government was crossing every red line and awarding its cronies and giving them exemptions. On the other hand, she said, the provinces were in surplus tax collection. “If you can’t run the federation, outsource it to us in Sindh as we are 8pc over our targeted tax collection. So are other provinces. It is Islamabad that is repeatedly failing and slipping drastically on every target,” she added.
The PPP senator said the federal government had changed five FBR heads over the past 18 months which reflected their gross mismanagement. “We are given IMF targets which even they know cannot be met. Now even the IMF is saying that the recent budget is not balanced. This has nothing to do with the provinces as they are providing the salaries and running the country financially. I challenge the government to open up the tax collection books and check the records. If the federal government cannot meet their targets then outsource the tax collection to Sindh. We will deliver above the targets,” she added.
Ms Rehman said the attack on the NFC Award was unacceptable. “The incompetence and unprecedented mismanagement of this government is a threat to Pakistan. The provinces are running this country and we will not allow the federal government to steal from the people,” she declared.
Leader of the House in the Senate Dr Shahzad Wasim, while defending the bill, said he was at a loss to understand why certain things are made “no-go areas”. He said that even the consensus 1973 Constitution had a room for amendments warranted by situations and ground realities. He said the 18th Amendment was an example and noted that 10 years had passed since the amendment was made and new challenges had surfaced which required a revisit.
Former Senate chairman and PPP stalwart Mian Raza Rabbani rejected a perception that the opposition and democratic forces were averse to debating the 18th Amendment and said the elite wanted to retain its control over all resources. He said the seventh NFC Award had been due for a long time.
He criticised the government for missing tax collection targets. “We are ready to revisit [Article] 3-A, but the provinces should be given authority to collect all taxes and the Centre should just send its bill to the federating units,” he said.
Usman Kakar of the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party also opposed the move to amend the scheme for distribution of resources under the NFC Award and said encroachment started soon after devolution of various subjects to the provinces under the 18th Amendment. He questioned the Centre over the establishment of ministries of national health services and national food security.
Mr Kakar made it clear that the presidential form of government would not be acceptable at any cost. He termed the MQM as remnants of former military dictators Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf. In what was seen by many as a veiled threat, he said the people of Sindh and Baluchistan were not weaker than the Bengalis.
Parliamentary leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Mushahidullah Khan said there was a presidential system in Pakistan at the time of its breakup. He castigated the government for setting a new record of external debt.
Attaur Rehman of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl said the proposed bill was tantamount to weakening the country and the federation. He alleged that those talking in support of the bill were merely tools in the hands of some behind-the-scenes forces.
Senator Faisal Javed of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf used the opportunity to criticise the main opposition parties of massive corruption and owning precious properties abroad, particularly mentioning Surrey mansion and Avenfield apartments.
At the conclusion of discussion, the chairman sought opinion of Leader of the Opposition in the Senate Raja Zafarul Haq on referring the bill to the Committee of the Whole. Mr Haq said the standard procedure should be adopted.
The motion seeking to allow introduction of the bill was rejected by the opposition-dominated house by a majority vote.
Published in Dawn, July 14th, 2020