Any constitution amendment altering the boundary of a province requires to be passed by a two-thirds majority of the province concerned. – File Photo

ISLAMABAD: The controversy over creating new provinces in Pakistan moved to the present parliament’s legislative agenda for the first time on Tuesday as the Muttahida Qaumi Movement introduced a private constitution amendment bill in the National Assembly seeking to carve out a “southern Punjab” province from Punjab and a “Hazara” province from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, stealing a march on the government’s own plans to bring a bill for a province of Seraiki-speaking south Punjab.

The government did not oppose the introduction of the  six-clause bill by one of its coalition partners, which will now go to a house standing committee on law and justice for vetting before coming back to the house where, being an amendment to the Constitution, it must be passed by at least two-thirds majority of the 342-seat house — as also by a two-thirds majority of the 100-seat Senate later.

Any constitution amendment altering the boundary of a province also requires to be passed by a two-thirds majority of the province concerned before becoming effective with a presidential assent.

These requirements complicate the MQM move as the Awami National Party (ANP), another partner in the coalition government led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), is strongly opposed to a bifurcation of Khyber Pakhtunkhawa, where it heads the present coalition government and which is its power base, although it supports the creation of a Seraiki province in Punjab.

The MQM bill, authored by four party members -- Wasim Akhter, Sajid Ahmed, Khawaja Sohail Mansoor and Syed Arif Hasnain -- cites population increase in Pakistan and a need for “effective decentralisation” as justifications to “bifurcate or even trifurcate an existing province” and proposes a referendum in southern Punjab to ascertain people’s wishes over the question of creating one or more provinces there, though it does not envisage a similar exercise over Hazara.

Demands for new provinces got a big boost during a two-day debate early this month in the National Assembly’s previous session over an MQM-sponsored resolution for a Seraiki and a Hazara province, which received support also from the PPP and the other major coalition partner, Pakistan Muslim League-Q, as well as opposition Jamiat Ulema-i-Islami and independents from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

While the resolution was not put to vote on some procedural grounds, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani suggested at the time that two separate constitution amendment bills be moved in the house because a two-thirds majority in the two houses of parliament was possible over the creation of a Seraiki province but the same might not be the case about Hazara because of ANP’s opposition in parliament and more crucial role in the Pakhtunkhawa provincial assembly.

The coalition has painted the PML-N, which is the main opposition party in the National Assembly but heads the provincial government in Punjab, as the main hurdle to new provinces, though the party says it is not against the concept of new provinces if created on administrative rather than linguistic grounds.

A constitution amendment passed by parliament for a new province in Punjab can be killed by the PML-N in the provincial assembly, but at a political risk of incurring hostility of supporters of a Seraiki province when the next general elections are only a year away.

PPP chief whip Khursheed Ahmed Shah, who is also the religious affairs minister, asked the house to let its standing committee decide the fate of the MQM bill as the government also signalled its willingness for the introduction of 11 other private bills tabled by members from both sides of the house on the first private members’ day of the present session that began on Thursday before the house was adjourned until 5pm on Wednesday.

Those bills included two of PPP member Azra Fazal Pehchuho seeking to facilitate issuance of national identity cards and passports to people with unidentified parentage, one by five female members from different parties representing a women’s caucus – Bushra Gohar , Nafisa Shah, Tasneem Siddiqui, Asiya Nasir and Attiya Inayatullah – seeking to require political parties to have at least 10 per cent women candidates for general seats and at least 33 per cent women in their general councils and associated committees.

One of four bills introduced by PPP’s Khurram Jahangir Watto sought amendment to the Pakistan Penal code to exempt women of any age and children under 15 from the death penalty.

Earlier, responding to a call-attention notice from five PPP members, parliamentary secretary for interior Ghulam Mujtaba Kharal told the house that the interior ministry would be willing to initiate a project to enhance the validity of a machine readable passport to 10 years but retain the present validity period of five years for those who needed passports for a limited period and for children whose facial features change with their age.