• NA rejects Rs21bn grant to ECP; law minister says judges stand divided over issue
• Vote on motion allowed through supplementary agenda
• Breaking with tradition, house transacts business in first sitting after religious affairs minister’s demise

ISLAMABAD: Amid the ongoing executive-judiciary tussle, the coalition government managed through the National Assembly on Monday the rejection of its own demand for provision of Rs21 billion as supplementary grant to the ECP for holding polls in Punjab and Khyber Pakht­unkhwa, thus nullifying the Supreme Court’s third directive for the release of funds for the purpose.

Speaker Raja Pervaiz Ashraf put the motion before the house for a voice vote after it was moved by Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar on behalf of Finance Minister Ishaq Dar through supplementary agenda.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, who came to the house after chairing an emergency meeting of the cabinet on the same issue, remained present during the proceedings which lasted for nearly two hours.

This was the first sitting of the assembly after the death of Religious Affairs Minister Mufti Abdul Shakoor a few of days ago.

As per parliamentary traditions, the house does not take up any business in the first sitting after the demise of a member; however, lawmakers allowed the speaker to break with the tradition when the law minister stated that it was urgent since the motion was “time-barred”.

The speaker adjourned the sitting for 15 minutes after the lawmakers paid tribute to the late minister in order to take up the government business.

Last week, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan Umar Ata Bandial had ordered the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) to release funds from Account No I — a principal component of the Federal Cons­olidated Fund worth Rs1.39 trillion — for holding the much-delayed elections to the assemblies of Punjab and KP on May 14.

The court had set April 17 as deadline for the SBP while directing it to immediately send an appropriate communication to the finance ministry, which would immediately issue a proper direction to the Accountant General Pakistan Revenue for increasing the limit of the ceiling by Rs21bn with respect to the ECP.

On April 12, the court had cautioned that the government’s failure to comply with its April 4 directions to issue funds to the ECP amounted to ‘disobedience’ and asked the SBP governor, finance secretary and ECP to appear in chambers.

The court had made it clear that this order would be deemed sufficient authority for all purposes for the authorisation of expenditure, and the federal government would obtain ex-post facto approval from the National Assembly for authorisation of this expenditure in terms of Article 84 and other applicable provisions of the Constitution.

Minister defends ECP

Speaking in the assembly, the law minister again briefed the members about the background of the “controversy” which, according to him, started with the SC’s decision to take suo motu action on the issue of delay in the elections.

He said even the SC judges were divided over the matter as most of them had already declared that the SC should not have jumped into the matter which was already pending before high courts.

Mr Tarar again defended the ECP’s decision of delaying the elections till October owing to the economic and security situation in the country. In an apparent reference to PTI chairman Imran Khan, he said holding elections again and again because of the ego of one person was not an appropriate thing to do.

Referring to the SC’s directive to SBP, Mr Tarar said that no amount could be released from the consolidated fund without the approval of parliament. He said it was in the light of the SC’s verdict that the house committee on finance took a suo motu notice and then referred the matter to the cabinet and parliament.

House finance panel

Earlier in the day, the house committee on finance and revenue, headed by Qaiser Shaikh of the ruling PML-N, held a meeting and after detailed deliberations referred the matter to be decided by the cabinet and parliament.

Mr Shaikh also presented the report before the house which adopted it immediately.

According to the report, the committee’s meeting had been called “to discuss and propose recommendations in response to media reports that the SC directed the SBP to release funds to the ECP for the purpose of holding the general election of the provincial assembly of the Punjab without prior approval of the National Assembly”.

In an open defiance to the SC, the government had already rejected a money bill for the grant of Rs21bn to the ECP in line with an earlier order of the court, besides rejecting its order for holding the polls in Punjab on May 14 through a number of resolutions.

The National Assembly has been witnessing fiery and unprecedented speeches from all the coalition partners against the judges, including the top judge, since the start of the tussle in March over the issue of holding polls on the demand of the opposition PTI.

Through as many as five damning resolutions, treasury lawmakers have not only “condemned” the apex court for allegedly becoming a political player, they have also urged the government not to implement its decision about holding the polls in Punjab on May 14.

Committee meeting

Earlier, the house committee on finance had advised the finance ministry to propose a supplementary grant through the federal cabinet for provision of funds to the ECP and let the National Assembly take a decision whether or not to release the funds.

At the outset of the meeting, the committee’s chairman asked if Finance Minister Ishaq Dar would attend the meeting but was informed by the government team that he was in Saudi Arabia. Mr Qaiser lamented that no finance minister had attended the finance committee meeting over the last one year.

The meeting was, however, attended by Minister of State for Finance Dr Aisha Ghaus Pasha, who told the committee that the SBP or her ministry did not have the powers to release funds from the federal consolidated fund without prior approval of parliament.

The law minister and the attorney general of Pakistan also attended the meeting.

To questions from members, the SBP representatives said they had received a notice from the court.

“We told the court that we can allocate money but permission for utilisation of funds would have to be given by the Ministry of Finance”, said one of the officials.

Published in Dawn, April 18th, 2023

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