ISLAMABAD: President Arif Alvi has blocked promulgation of an ordinance, moved by the caretaker government just before the end of its term that apparently sought to neutralise the powers of the Indus River System Authority (Irsa) bypassing the Council of Common Interests (CCI).

Informed sources said the president rejected the proposed amendments to the 1991 Irsa Act on the grounds that such a critical matter involving the interests and rights of the federating units should not be considered in haste by an unrepresentative administration.

The proposed amendments meant diluting the collective powers of Irsa, comprising four provincial and a federal member. It also sought to restrict the provinces to hold the position of Irsa Chairman, currently on annual rotation basis and instead replace it with a chairman always to be appointed by the federal government.

Instead, it gave overwhelming powers to the chairman selected by the prime minister to rule the roost through his handpicked “independent consultants and experts” in critical decision-making relating to irrigation system.

As if that was not enough, an officer of the water resources ministry holding multiple other posts, was to act as the Irsa chairman in the absence a regular chairman of the water regulator, replacing the position of the chief engineering adviser/chairman of federal flood commission (CEA/CFCC) who has to perform responsibilities of the chairman or federal member of Irsa.

Proposed changes to 1991 Irsa Act were rejected on grounds that such a critical matter should not be considered by caretakers

The sources said the amendments to the Irsa Act were passed by caretaker federal cabinet in the last week of January on the clearance of the Cabinet Committee on Legislative Cases (CCLC) led by law minister Ahmad Irfan Aslam who also holds the portfolio of water resources.

The meeting of the CCLC which cleared the proposed amendments to the 1992 Irsa Act on January 26 was also attended by caretaker Minister for Defence Anwar Ali Hyder and caretaker Minister for Planning and Development Sami Saeed.

The sources said that Planning Minister Sami Saeed strongly opposed amendments to the Irsa Act saying it was a very sensitive matter and should be avoided by the caretaker government. In his opinion, Irsa was created by the CCI as part of the 1991 Water Apportionment Act and only the CCI had the constitutional jurisdiction over Irsa matters.

“Through these proposed changes, we would be pitting the provinces against the federation,” Mr Saeed was quoted as saying while insisting that his dissenting point of view should be made part of the summary to the cabinet if the CCLC did not change its stance.

The matter was subsequently taken up in the cabinet meeting on January 30 but was deferred for further debate.

In a subsequent meeting two days later, the cabinet endorsed the CCLC decisions of January 26 and 31 including draft amendments, allowing the ministry of law to move the case to the President for promulgation of the ordinance.

The President, however, rejected the proposed ordinance for being of far-reaching consequences and better be left to elected representatives of the provinces due in a couple of weeks and to the relevant constitutional forum.

At present, Irsa has five members representing the provinces and the federal government. One of the members has to act as chairman for a term of one year on rotation basis.

The draft ordinance required that the post of chairman be separated from the members and it should be appointed directly by the prime minister instead of the federal or provincial governments as required under the original act.

In addition, Irsa could coopt other members as well but on the recommendation of the chairman, who would “be an employee of the federal government, either serving or retired in BPS-21” on such terms and conditions as may be determined by the prime minister.

The draft law sought to restrict the provincial governments to approach CCI for being aggrieved by any decision of Irsa and instead required the review to be filed before the Irsa chairman who was to decide the matter through speaking orders on the basis of consultations with an independent expert committee appointed by the chairman. On top of this, such a decision of the Chairman (a Grade 21 officer) “shall be final and shall not be called in question before any court, forum or authority, except the CCI”.

To downgrade the provincial representation, the proposed ordinance suggested creation of the post of a vice chairman of Irsa to be nominated on rotation basis from amongst the members. To sidestep the Supreme Court judgement defining the federal government as the cabinet instead of the minister or the prime minister, the draft law replaced the words the “federal government” explicitly with the “prime minister” to avoid collective decision making in such appointments.

Published in Dawn, February 12th, 2024

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