Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Business Recirder editorial June 1, 2016

'Peculiar' mindset Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani delivered a thoughtful and thought-provoking address at a seminar in Islamabad on May 31. Delivering a speech to a policy dialogue entitled "Future of fiscal federalism in Pakistan -- issues and options", the Senate Chairman explicated the imperatives facing the federation after the devolution of powers to the provinces under the 18th Constitutional Amendment, a tortuous exercise fathered and guided by none other than Raza Rabbani. Although the difficult task of forging parliamentary consensus to change the federal structure and in the process do away with the myriads of distortions introduced in the constitution by successive governments, particularly by the General Ziaul Haq dictatorship, achieved most of its objectives barring a few that still cause division and were left intact, Rabbani pinpointed the implementation failures in letter and spirit that have attended the exercise since the 18th Amendment was adopted in 2010. First and foremost, the Senate Chairman delivered an unequivocal message that if the democratic system was tampered with, the federation would be at risk. As to the provisions of the 18th Amendment, Rabbani deplored the fact that a 'peculiar' mindset had yet to accept the principle of provincial autonomy. Suggesting four basic steps as the way forward for fiscal devolution as envisaged in the 18th Amendment, Rabbani advocated giving financial powers to the Senate. Rabbani underlined the need for the National Financial Commission (NFC) Award to be given on time every five years and provided a better monitoring mechanism. He noted that the impending budget would be the second under the 7th NFC Award since the new Award was delayed due to one province's failure to nominate its member. He contended that the Federal Legislative List Part-II items were under the legislative and administrative control, in terms of policy and supervision, of the Council of Common Interests (CCI), therefore it would be appropriate for the budget pertaining to these items to be approved by the CCI and not the cabinet. The Senate Chairman emphasised that this was even more necessary when a new NFC Award was still pending. He also referred to Clause III of Article 172 pertaining to the 59 percent equal ownership of oil and gas between the provinces and the federation. Successive governments, he argued, have deliberately not taken any steps in this direction because the federation does not want to relinquish its stranglehold on these resources. Last but not least, Rabbani informed his audience that in almost all the federations of the world, the Upper House, which represents the federating units, has financial powers, whereas in some cases the federating units/nationalities also have fiscal powers. It is imperative, the Chairman reiterated the oft repeated argument, to carry out the (long delayed) census immediately as no meaningful planning for resource distribution can take place without it. Rabbani dismissed the argument that the provinces lack the capacity to absorb and manage their new devolved responsibilities as propaganda intended to provide an excuse to sabotage the rights granted to the provinces. Forceful advocacy of a cherished principle notwithstanding, the exercise to create and strengthen provincial capacity was not undertaken, therefore the issue could have dimensions other than malign purpose. Turning to education, the Chairman Senate pointed out that after the 18th Amendment, education, including higher education, had been devolved to the legislative and executive jurisdiction of the provinces. Although the envisaged commission on standards, etc, to replace the Higher Education Commission had yet to be set up even after six years, this task was considered crucial by Rabbani. What he did not touch upon however, is the unresolved spluttering debate about decision making regarding curricula and medium of instruction after the devolution. Rabbani has touched many a raw nerve and sensitive issue rooted in our past. The 'peculiar' mindset he referred to was the received wisdom for many years that a 'weak' Centre (meaning autonomy for the provinces) would be a disaster for the nascent state beset by external and internal challenges. While we celebrate the achievement of the 18th Amendment in reversing this line of thinking, which arguably laid the foundations for the truncation of the country and continuing conflict in some federating units, let us now gird up our loins to implement the remaining autonomy provisions of the Amendment and open up the debate on restructuring the constitutional fiscal architecture of the state, including giving the Senate, as the repository of the federating units' mandate, fiscal powers as is the norm in most countries.

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