ISLAMABAD: Struggling to fulfil a constitutional requirement of keeping the National Assembly in session for a minimum of 130 days in a parliamentary year, the government on Thursday convened a new session of the lower house of parliament on Friday (today) on a notice of less than 24 hours, amid an unprecedented surge in Covid-19 cases all over the country, particularly in the federal capital.
President Dr Arif Alvi summoned the session to meet at the Parliament House at 10.30am after the Senate Secretariat, located in the same building, issued two different notifications stating that the offices would remain closed for three days (Friday to Sunday) due to a rise in Covid-19 cases and to disinfect the precincts.
Last month, when the government convened the National Assembly session on a one-day notice just to get extension in the period of some ordinances and to form a parliamentary committee on electoral reforms, the opposition had lodged a strong protest. This time, however, sources told Dawn the session has been convened with complete understanding of opposition members.
It was after reaching an understanding with the opposition that the National Assembly Secretariat later issued SOPs (standard operating procedures) for the session, stating that the National Assembly will meet only for three days in a week, i.e. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and that the maximum duration of a sitting will be two hours. It says that “a minimum number of the members will remain in the house at a time” and that “the parliamentary parties will be informed three days in advance in case of taking up any important legislation during the session”.
The official data of the National Assembly Secretariat shows that the assembly has so far remained in session for 61 days since the start of the third parliamentary year in August last year. The number of actual sittings during the eight months is only 37 as the two sandwiched holidays between two working days are also counted as the session days. This means that the government is required to keep the assembly in session for another 69 days by August 12. It is expected that the government will manage to meet the constitutional requirement as the budget session is also round the corner.
Last month when the session was convened, the opposition had lodged a strong protest
The National Assembly Secretariat has issued an 11-point routine agenda for Friday’s sitting which includes two calling attention notices on the issues of “closure of Nawa Pass and Gorsal border points at Pakistan-Afghanistan border for trade/business activities” and “increasing drug addiction among the youth in Lahore”.
According to the agenda, federal Minister for Energy Omer Ayub Khan will lay the Regulation of Generation, Transmission and Distribution of Electric Power (Amendment) Ordinance, 2021, in the assembly as required under the Constitution.
Besides this, Minister for Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Noorul Haq Qadri and Human Rights Minister Dr Shireen Mazari will introduce the Muslim Family Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021 and the National Commission on the Rights of Child (Amendment) Bill, 2021, respectively.
When contacted, secretary general of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and MNA Ahsan Iqbal confirmed that the government had informed the opposition that it had convened the session only to meet the constitutional requirement of completing the days.
He said an understanding had almost been reached between the two sides that the government would not bring any controversial agenda during the session because it had decided to restrict the number of attending members due to the pandemic.
When asked as to why the opposition was cooperating with the government when it had previously decided not to do so, the PML-N leader said it was not cooperation with the government since the parliament did not only belong to the government. Moreover, he said, the parliament must complete the mandatory days as given in the Constitution.
Talking to Dawn, Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) information secretary and MNA Shazia Marri said her party’s lawmakers would not like to see violation of any constitutional provision, but the government should not undermine the parliament’s role.
“The government always calls the parliamentary sessions all of a sudden. We can’t say that the sessions should not be called, but what was the national emergency to call the NA session on such a short time,” she said.
She said the Senate Secretariat had announced closure of its offices due to Covid-19, but the NA session had been convened in the same building and on the same day.
Ms Marri said the government should not pick and choose things from the Constitution. Criticising the government for doing legislation mostly through ordinances, she said if the government was concerned about meeting the constitutional requirement, then it should also fulfil other constitutional obligations too.
On the opening day of the previous National Assembly session on March 30, Raja Pervez Ashraf of the PPP had protested over the government’s move to convene the session at a time when Islamabad was witnessing the highest-ever positivity rate for Covid-19 cases.
On the one hand, he said, the government was banning all types of indoor and outdoor gatherings and imposing restrictions and, on the other, it had called the assembly on a one-day notice merely to meet the constitutional requirement of days. He said there was nothing important in the agenda items which could justify the government’s act of convening the session during the pandemic.
Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2021