NA’s standing committee on finance rejects bill seeking funds for polls

Published April 13, 2023
National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Finance and Revenue Chairman Qaiser Ahmed Sheikh talks to Dawn.com on April 13. — Screengrab from video provided by Tahir Sherani
National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Finance and Revenue Chairman Qaiser Ahmed Sheikh talks to Dawn.com on April 13. — Screengrab from video provided by Tahir Sherani

The fate of the Supreme Court’s deadline to hold elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa became more uncertain on Thursday after the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Finance and Revenue rejected a bill seeking the release of $21 billion to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP).

On April 4, the apex court had fixed May 14 as the date for the polls in Punjab and directed the federal government to release the election funds to the ECP by April 10 for elections to both assemblies.

The government, instead of disbursing the funds to the commission, had referred the matter to the Parliament, where Finance Minister Ishaq Dar on Monday tabled a bill titled “Charged Sum for General Election (Provincial Assemblies of Punjab & Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) Bill 2023”.

In a brief conversation with Dawn.com after the NA committee meeting wrapped up today, panel chairman Qaiser Ahmed Sheikh, who is of the PML-N, said that the bill was rejected.

“This bill […] as it was not allocated in our budget and the finance minister has said that funds are not available, there was no other option [so] we rejected it.

“We do not have any other fund, right — the committee does not have funds of its own. The alerts that we have been given […] the entire committee has collectively rejected the bill,” he said.

During today’s meeting, committee chairman Qaiser Ahmed Sheikh raised an objection on why the bill was presented before the finance committee and not the budget committee.

The committee then rejected the bill. The standing committee’s rejection of the bill means it will return to the NA for lawmakers to ponder over, from whence it will be sent to the relevant committees again.

The meeting

At the outset of the hearing, committee chairman Sheikh said he wanted to talk to some members separately before the meeting. “This is an important matter. We have to make a plan of action,” he said.

Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) leader Khalid Hussain Magsi said that “members have been waiting since 10:30am, you may start the meeting”, which Sheikh complied with.

The chairman then asked State Minister for Finance Ayesha Ghaus Pasha to brief the committee on the bill. She told the committee, “This year, 5bn rupees were kept for the election commission. Now the Supreme Court has asked to give 21bn rupees. This is why this demand was brought into the money bill.

Mutahidda Qaumi Movement’s Sabir Hussain Kaimkhani said, “First, this should be told why was it brought into the money bill this time.”

To this, Pasha replied, “Parliament’s approval is also required for such a huge amount to be approved by the federal consolidated fund.

PML-N leader Barjees Tahir said, “It is a governmental bill, members have come from afar. The finance minister should take the members into confidence.

“The bill hasn’t been passed yet and the eight judges have sat in the Supreme Court (on the Supreme Court rule bill). The way funds are being received through black-mailing, we express our solidarity with the government,” Tahir said.

He added, “We say to the government to not pay heed to such black-mailing.”

Here, ECP Secretary Omar Hamid Khan said, “We also know the finance division’s situation. We had demanded 21bn rupees from the finance ministry. We have to present a report in the Supreme Court tomorrow.”

Tahir then responded, “We have said that the amount is not available.” Then PML-N’s Ali Pervaiz asked Pasha to tell if the funds could be provided or not.

The state minister for finance said, “We are in the IMF programme and cannot increase the financial loss. We do not have the funds.

The committee chairman, PML-N’s Sheikh, said, “There is the current fiscal year’s budget. In that as well, funds have not been included.” PML-N’s Chaudhary Khalid Javed also asked for the bill to be rejected.

Sheikh then asked if any such a bill had come forward in the past and why the need arose now.

A law ministry official said the money bill is presented before the finance committee after the parliament, to which the committee chairman replied that he has not seen so happening in the past 10 years.

“It is the decision of the standing committee on finance that any governmental bill will not be approved till the finance minister himself comes and briefs the committee,” Sheikh said.

At one point during the meeting, BAP’s Magsi said, “The treasury is empty now. The matter of the provision of funds to the election commission will come later. Elections in the entire country should be held at once.

“Punjab elections should not be held four months prior [to the designated time] — Punjab is the largest province. If Punjab elections are held before other provinces, it will impact the election of those other provinces,” he further said.

Here, Pasha said, “The economic situation of the country is such that the budget situation is under extreme pressure. The government is facing extreme financial issues.

The PML-N leader continued, “The government inherited heavy financial loss. The IMF (international monetary fund) program is being restored and an economic review is ongoing.

“The economy is under pressure due to the international situation, including the Ukraine war, and the floods. The economic growth rate has also reduced,” Pasha said.

Regarding the petrol subsidy that was recently in works by the government, she said, “We said to the IMF that no decision had been taken on the petroleum subsidy.

“We told the IMF that the petroleum subsidy has not been finalised for now. Will tell the IMF when it has been finalised. Right now, the petroleum division is reviewing the subsidy,” the minister added.

At one point during the meeting, Tahir said, “The election commission should not be issued a single rupee for Punjab elections. We think that all these things are plotted.”

He said neither should the elections take place nor funds be released for them considering the country’s situation and reiterated that he was standing with the government on this matter.

The bill

The bill stated that funds required for conducting elections in both the provinces shall be “an expenditure charged upon the Federal Consolidated Fund (FCF)”, which it said comprises all revenues received by the federal government, all loans raised by the government and all money received by it in repayment of any loan.

It said it shall “override other laws” and have effect “notwithstanding anything contained in any other law, rules and regulations” when it was in force.

The bill further said that the proposed law would stand repealed once elections for both assemblies were held, noting that the general elections and polls to the Sindh and Balochistan assemblies need not be held for it to be repealed.

SC warns govt of consequences, summons AGP and others

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court on Wednesday warned that the failure of the federal government to comply with the April 4 direction regarding the release of the funds to the ECP for elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, prime facie amounts to disobedience.

“The consequences that can flow from such prima facie defiance of the court are well settled and known,” said an order issued by the Supreme Court registrar in which the governor of the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), Attorney General for Pakistan (AGP) Mansoor Usman Awan, the finance secretary, and the ECP representatives were asked to appear in chambers on Friday (April 14) at 11:00 am.

The order was issued after the matter was placed before the judges — who decided the case on April 4 — in chambers.

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