A NATIONAL Assembly panel rightly postponed the clearance of the proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Authority (Amendment) Bill, 2020, for discussion and voting by the lower house till the government satisfies its members on the authority’s legal status months after the lapse of the ordinance that created it.

The panel wanted the planning officials to explain the legal basis for the authority to continue to exist and for its chairman to keep his job after the ordinance’s expiry in May. The officials couldn’t come up with any plausible explanation for the existence of the authority or the expense incurred on running it without any law to protect its operations. Among other things, the bill seeks to indemnify the actions of the authority since the expiry of the ordinance that had been promulgated a year ago and later extended in January.

The officials said that the authority did not have a chairman at the moment. But the panel could not be convinced when informed that the ‘incumbent chairman’ of the technically defunct authority was just ‘coordinating’ without drawing any salary or perks since the expiry of the ordinance. Some members demanded that the planning ministry issue a written clarification that there was no chairman of the CPEC Authority, and also explain as to how it was functioning when the ordinance had lapsed, as a precondition for the clearance of the proposed bill by the panel. This is a fair demand for greater transparency in the affairs of the authority.

It is ironic that an agency that was created to inject momentum into CPEC projects and streamline the initiative’s policymaking process is caught up in a storm because the government didn’t put in the effort required for the timely passage of legislation. That is not all. The government’s refusal to address questions regarding the financial probity of the authority head have also led to transparency concerns.

The delay in the passage of the bill required to give legal cover to the authority will not send positive signals to China at a time when the multibillion-dollar CPEC initiative, hit by a sharp slowdown for the last three years, is expected to pick up momentum. With the tenth Joint Cooperation Committee meeting scheduled for later this month, Pakistan and China are expected to take important decisions about infrastructure projects like the ML-1 and hydropower schemes, as well as review progress on the SEZs being developed to facilitate Chinese/local investment in the manufacturing sector in the second phase of CPEC.

It is crucial that the government allays the concerns of the parliamentarians. Moreover, the government must ensure that the authority is staffed by the most qualified people for the job and untainted by financial controversy. Only by addressing such concerns can the authority become effective and expedite work on the CPEC projects.

Published in Dawn, November 12th, 2020

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