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Manifesto of hope

The Pakistan Peoples’ Party has an impressive party manifesto. Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has announced that if elected to power, the PPP will abolish 17 federal ministries that continue to be retained by Islamabad in contravention of the 18th Amendment.

These ministries are utterly redundant and are a huge loss to the public exchequer. The PPP intends to use these saved funds on poverty alleviation and hopes to transition Pakistan into a welfare state.

The federal government’s mindless expenditure on unconstitutional federal ministries and loss-making state-owned enterprises (SOEs) has been a continuous drain on sorely needed public resources. With high rates of inflation and abject poverty, the only solution lies in the implementation of the constitution on both the political and fiscal fronts.

The Zia and Musharraf regimes jointly succeeded in obliterating the federal parliamentary system enacted under the 1973 constitution, thereby concentrating provincial powers at the centre.

Through protracted political struggle, the 18th Amendment was passed in 2010. Lately, public debate is centred on the rolling back of the 18th Amendment. This is dangerous. This amendment offers both the political and economic emancipation of the people if implemented in letter and spirit.

Federations are based on a division of powers scheme as outlined in any country’s constitution created by a constituent assembly which in turn is created by constituent units (provinces/states).

In Pakistan’s case (as promised under the June 3, 1947 Partition plan announced by Lord Mountbatten) both the constitutions of 1956 and 1962 contravened the original Partition plan. Based on two instead of five provinces, these derailed the political system and resulted in the separation of Bengal in 1971.

Later, through the efforts of a new constituent assembly, a constitution was passed unanimously by all parties and a federal government was created in 1973. Only powers enumerated in the federal legislative list were assigned to it. All other powers were to be retained by the provinces.

The federal government is thus the government of enumerated powers only whereas the provinces are the government of all other powers.

The federal legislative list consists of two parts: executive authority over Part I is to be exercised by the federal cabinet, and executive authority over Part II by the Council of Common Interests – both being responsible to parliament.

The federal legislative list has 53 matters out of which 14 relate to taxation, offences and inquiries. Of the remaining 39 subjects, the federal government has five responsibilities: foreign policy, defence, tax collection, commerce (including shipping) and national highways.

Under Part II of the federal list, 18 matters have been entrusted to the Council of Common Interests, to be supervised/controlled by the permanent secretariat of the CCI. Everything else belongs to the provinces. Only three subjects: criminal law (only the Pakistan Penal Code), criminal procedure and evidence are retained by both Islamabad and the provinces.

The above is a simple lawful constitutional division of powers. However, in flagrant, blatant and brazen violation of the constitution, the federal government has created 34 ministries, 43 divisions and hundreds of corporations/statutory bodies instead of only six ministries: defence, foreign affairs, commerce, finance, law and national highways.

The role of all federal government ministries is meant to be supportive in nature. The original functions of education, health, agriculture, industry, lands, irrigation, law and order, narcotics control, local government, social security and all other functions (not listed in federal legislative lists) belong to the provinces.

An infructuous and massive annual budget, Rs10,000 billion, is spent in Islamabad. All four provinces have less than this number as a budget despite having the enormous responsibilities of education, health, law and order, industry, agriculture, local government and social security. The Rs10,000 billion federal budget is a heavy burden on the people.

At least 34 ministries, 43 divisions and 400 corporations and statutory bodies have to be slashed down to six ministries as mandated under the constitution. This will have far-reaching positive political and economic ramifications for all citizens.

For example, law and order/policing is purely a provincial matter, not enumerated in the federal legislative list. Instead, Islamabad has created the Ministry of Interior and retained police service as well as the Rangers and Frontiers Corps.

The federal government must retain only passport, immigration and citizenship matters handled by the foreign ministry (like in the USA). Instead, the interior ministry dabbles in administrative and political matters, violates fundamental rights, and engages in political engineering. Once it is abolished the executive can no longer hide behind the interior ministry in such matters.

Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s promise to fully implement the 18th Amendment to limit the federal government to its constitutional mandate will be a major constitutional step. It requires no legislation. The money saved will be spent on the welfare of the people.

Unfortunately, the dispute resolution mechanism (DRM) provided under Article 184 of the constitution has not worked well. The original jurisdiction to adjudicate any dispute between two or more provincial or federal governments has been conferred upon the Supreme Court to the exclusion of all other courts.

For the DRM to be successful, the composition of the SC has to be based on equal representation of provinces. Constitutional institutions such as the Senate, CCI, National Finance Commission (NFC), National Economic Council and Election Commission of Pakistan are based on equal representation of provinces.

Not surprisingly, the smaller provinces have not resorted to the original jurisdiction of the SC for fear of adverse judgements due to their underrepresentation in the SC.

The PPP’s election promise to abolish 17 ministries will be a huge leap towards a genuine constitutional federation, restoring political contract, ensuring fundamental rights and giving a sorely needed fillip to the economy.

Barrister Zamir Ghumro, "Manifesto of hope," The News. 2024-01-28.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political system , Parliament , Jurisdiction , Bilawal Bhutto , Pakistan , PPP , CCI