Taming Irsa

Published February 23, 2024
The writer is a civil society professional.
The writer is a civil society professional.

IN a significant move, President Arif Alvi has refused to approve a contentious summary that seeks to restructure the Indus River System Authority (Irsa) Act 1992. The proposal restricts the water regulator’s decision-making powers, reduces provincial representation and empowers a non-member chairman in terms of technical, administrative and financial autonomy. Hitherto, the post of the authority’s chairperson is assumed by one of the members on a rotational basis. In its present construct, Irsa is a federal structure comprising representatives from the provinces and the centre. Every year, a member heads the body as envisaged in the Irsa Act 1992, and matters of conflict are resolved through a voting process.

Under the postulated new arrangement, the chairperson will be bolstered by the creation of an ‘independent experts committee’, whereas the present Irsa has an inclusive advisory committee, with representation from the irrigation and agriculture departments in all provinces and Wapda. The bureaucrat head will also enjoy extraordinary powers, which include review and settlement of the grievances of a distressed province after consulting his handpicked experts. This would essentially render Irsa members and the advisory committee ineffective and completely subdued by the chairperson and selected wizards.

The process of amendment is being carried out in sheer violation of the Constitution, as the modus operandi of the proposed Irsa Amendment Act is in contravention of Articles 154 and 155.

Article 154 (1) empowers the Council of Common Interests to formulate and regulate policies on subjects contained in the Federal Legislative List Part II. Item 6 on the list is “all regulatory authorities established under a federal law”. Article 155 brings water-related matters under the jurisdiction of the CCI. It reads: “if the interests of a province, the federal capital or any of the inhabitants thereof, in water from any natural source of supply [or reservoir] have been or are likely to be affected”. Hence, Irsa is constitutionally under the domain of CCI. The two articles amply explain that the federal cabinet has no jurisdiction over Irsa-related matters. With such unambiguous constitutional provisions, the submission of a proposal to amend the 1992 Act is tantamount to violating constitutional stipulations.

The draft law to amend the Irsa Act violates the Constitution.

Thus, the Irsa chairperson bypassed the CCI and submitted the draft to the water resources ministry. It seems the chair took this decision without consulting members who become direct stakeholders of any such legislative undertaking by the authority. In unusual haste, the water resources ministry forwarded the proposal to the Law and Justice Division the next working day, which ostensibly worked at the speed of light to return the vetted draft to the ministry in a day. Such unprecedented promptness to push this amendment reveals the level of desperation among its advocates. Perhaps they want the ordinance promulgated before the caretaker government’s tenure expires.

Some cabinet members vehemently opposed the amendment, and prior to their protests, Irsa’s member from Sindh also made his disapproval of the proposed amendment clear through a letter addressed to the chairman. The Sindh government took exception to the said summary and the provincial minister of irrigation reportedly sent a strongly worded missive to the caretaker prime minister, going as far as to equate the proposed amendment with an attack on the sanctity of the Wa­­ter Appor­tion­ment Accord, 1991. But all sane voices were brushed asi­de and the Irsa Amen­d­m­ent Act was sent for the president’s stamp of approval. Al­­th­ough Presi­dent Alvi has returned the draft law unsigned, it is feared that the caretaker government will make another attempt to have this ordinance cleared before an elected government takes charge.

Moreover, with a federal government bureaucrat as chairperson, Irsa will become a centralised entity, its daily operational matters will be controlled by the state government and the chief will not be accountable to Irsa members as decisions will be taken in consultation with an experts committee that lacks any provincial representation. The very structure is against the spirit of federation and contradicts the genesis of Irsa.

Amid nerve-wracking prescriptions for the reversal of the 18th Amendment and curtailing provincial shares in the NFC award, an attempt to centralise Irsa is bound to stoke a new wave of disharmony. In a polarised political ambience, such ill-conceived experiments do not augur well for the federation.

The writer is a civil society professional.

nmemon2004@yahoo.com

Published in Dawn, February 23rd, 2024

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