Islamabad must play role of neutral umpire


The Finance Minister of Sindh, Murad Ali Shah, at a joint press conference with the Sindh Senior Minister Nisar Khuhro, has accused Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of partisanship, allowing the Punjab government to establish a solar-powered plant while denying the same to the province of Sindh.

Furthermore, he accused the Centre of avoiding a discussion on the import of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) at the Council of Common Interest (CCI) forum. And, Shah is threatening to cut off supply of domestic natural gas from Sindh to an energy-deficient Punjab – even though the supply is in excess of Sindh’s requirements. This is not the first time that Sharif has been accused of acting more as the Prime Minister of Punjab than of entire Pakistan. In his second stint as prime minister, he was accused by Karachi-based eminent businessmen of supporting the establishment of a mass transit system in Lahore when the feasibility of the Canadian-aided project had been proposed for Karachi.

The Sharifs are also accused of denying Karachi a mass transit system. Islamabad’s failure to extend a sovereign guarantee of 600 million dollars led to the demise of Karachi Mass Transit Project. Such behaviour is disheartening as it creates disharmony among the federating units.

Everyone knows that support in Punjab is considered essential to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan. But once a member of the National Assembly is elected as the prime minister of the country, he and his cabinet are expected to strengthen and not weaken the federation. The 1973 Constitution unambiguously states that the country shall be a federation. Unfortunately, however, for reasons that are well known, the federal government encroached upon rights and powers of the federating units (provinces) by maintaining the “Concurrent Legislative List” well beyond the period envisaged in the constitution.

This enabled it to conduct the affairs of the federation in a manner that is more suited to a unitary form of government rather than a federal form. The passage of the 18th Amendment that abolished the ‘Concurrent Legislative List’ ensures that the State of Pakistan shall be governed and administered as a federation. Unfortunately, however, the leadership from central Punjab feels that the 18th Amendment has turned the state into a confederation rather than a federation and they confuse the federal set-up with a unitary form of government inherited from the colonial masters. Sharing of power in a federation is part and parcel of a federal setup. That is precisely why whole of Europe has moved away from Westminster style of governance and also from the first part the post-electoral system to a proportional representation electoral setup or combination of the two.

Minister of Petroleum Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has said the countrywide ban on establishing new solar and wind power had been imposed by the Prime Minister and that has now been removed. Why was the ban imposed in the first place? Perhaps, the cost of alternate energy (solar and wind power) was more and the consumers could end up paying a higher tariff. However, the solar plant at Bahawalpur (Punjab) of 100MW was permitted to be established.

This is a convenient ploy. Cost of solar power is higher than wind power’s – even though the cost is coming down as technology and volumes for cleaner energy improve and traditional power plants are being gradually shut down. However, alternate energy cannot be a substitute for hydel power in Pakistan since 30 percent of our electricity is generated from the rivers. Further, three more mega dams are being executed namely: Diamer-Bhasha, Bunji and Dasu. Under Pakistan’s energy vision, solar and wind power shall always remain marginal.

Abbasi further said that LNG import is a federal subject and therefore discussing the issue of its import at the forum of the Council of Common Interest (CCI) does not arise. However, when a part of the imported RLNG will be swapped with natural gas consumed by Sindh, as is the proposed scheme, Sindh’s demand to be included in this decision-making process cannot be dismissed. If the swap was not taking place then it was purely a matter of imported commodity and the federal government would be well within its right to decide without consultation with any of the provinces. Abbasi has also claimed that imported LNG is of higher calorific value than domestic natural gas. Thus a swap is to the advantage of Sindh. If this is true a technical report needs to be provided to Sindh. However, let us not weaken but work towards strengthening the federation.

Practising federalism is not easy, particularly when the population of federating unit is greater than those living in the remaining federating units. This has been Pakistan’s dilemma since its birth. The then East Pakistan with a higher population (more than 50%; to be precisely 56%) constituted the majority by itself and after 1971 it is Punjab. The then West Pakistan was crafted as an artificial construct despite diverse languages and cultures within West Pakistan and a system of parity introduced to allay the sense of insecurity of residents in the western wing. The Indus Water Treaty has successfully endured three wars so far because the World Bank acts as a neutral umpire. Islamabad, too, needs to do the same in the greater interest of the federation and its units.