There is a trend in the way National Assembly passes bills. There are months of relative inactivity, and then a flurry of bills is passed. This is especially evident around the time the federal budget is presented.

With the National Assembly set to dissolve this week as the country gears up for elections, it has been especially active the past few days — 11 bills have been passed in the first four days of this month, according to the data given on the National Assembly’s website. Media reports indicate more may have been drafted.

Activity trumps inactivity. It is better for the government to be working rather than slinging political slurs. However, when due process is short-circuited for the benefit of those in power, liberties and rights are infringed, eventually hurting economic progress.

The coalition government has bulldozed laws without allowing time for members of the National Assembly or senators to read and understand how it would impact their constituencies or the country in general. It is simply not physically possible for a person to read the amount required for a single bill in a day and comprehend its merits or demerits.

For example, a bill sets up Gwadar University in Lahore, which, on the face of it, promotes higher education in the country. As laudable as the gesture may be, it begs the question of whether Lahore needs a university more or whether it would be better to set it up in Balochistan.

Then there are the bills that empower the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority to oversee the dissemination of “authentic news” and prohibit media from spreading “disinformation”, which many see as a gag on the press.

Journalists can critique the economic mess created by successive governments through the limited press freedom offered. Stifling free speech does not mean that the economic conditions improve; it just means less holistic awareness of problems with the gap in knowledge filled with disinformation or misinformation.

Then there is the recent move to amend the Official Secrets Act, which has been criticised for being vague and harsh. The amendment to Section 4, which pertains to: “Communication with ene­my or foreign agents to be evidence of commission of certain offence,” can have consequences. Ostensibly, anyone, a legislator, businessman, professional or government officer, can be detained and punished for being in contact with a foreign citizen.

The establishment and the government had set up the Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC) to attract foreign investment through increasing ease of doing business. It has an extraordinarily lofty goal of attracting $100 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) in three years. Pakistan’s FDI in FY23 was $1.46bn, so SIFC envisages a 67x increase in the tenure of the upcoming government (assuming it remains in power, always a question mark in Pakistan).

As ludicrous as the amount is, imagine it is possible and some hapless businessman tries to export to India. There is a chance that under the amendment to the Official Secrets Act, he may be detained and punished. Would such a scenario, however implausible, increase investor confidence or ease of doing business?

Then there is the financial crimes bill that sets up a new authority to counter money laundering and terror financing. Given Pakistan’s checkered history with the Financial Action Task Force and how being grey-listed, or blacklisted, affects funds inflow and hence investment, attempts to control money laundering and terror financing are essential.

The new authority may be a resounding success or completely inept, but bills of such national interest should not be sped through without deliberations.

Not all bills passed were of national importance; for example, one concerns the governing of a Gun and Country Club in Islamabad.

Lately, investors have been in a cheerful mood, as evidenced by the recent bullish run in the Pakistan Stock Exchange. The $3bn Stand-By Agreement from the International Monetary Fund, the $10bn Saudi-backed refinery investment at Gwadar, and the general expectation of elections that may end uncertainty seem to have breathed optimism in an economy that was teetering on the edge of default just a few months ago.

However, no structural imbalance has been fixed, and no measure taken appears to be more than a band-aid. The government borrowed roughly half a trillion rupees from banks in the first 21 days of the fiscal year, leading to a debt of Rs7.3tr in FY24. Pakistan continues to sink into the debt trap.

Among the bills passed, none are debated as the harbingers of economic growth and prosperity, nothing that would make us less likely to be seen as poor and broke by the international community. They are viewed with suspicion and hostility as the outgoing acts of a government scrambling to hold on to power rather than for the good of the people.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, August 7th, 2023

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