Sultan M Hali
RECENTLY, Federal Government has placed functioning of 5 Regulatory Bodies ie; National Electric Power Regulatory Authority (NEPRA), Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), Frequency Allocation Board (FAB), Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority (OGRA) and Public Procurement Regulatory Authority (PPRA) under concerned ministries vide a notification issued on June 06, 2017. Readers may recall that a similar attempt was made in December 2016, in which Administrative Control of same 5 Regulatory Bodies was placed under concerned Ministries. On Feb 22, 2017, the decision of the Federal Government was challenged in Lahore High Court.
In the previous attempt, only administrative control of these Regulatory Bodies was transferred to concerned Ministries, whereas this time, Federal Government has given complete control to concerned Ministries by awarding Federal Government Functions of these Regulatory Bodies. Islamabad High Court also set aside the decision in Mar 2017 on same plea that decision needs approval from Council of Common Interest (CCI). Islamabad High Court was approached by Civil Society and the same was suspended by Lahore High Court on the plea that Prime Minister issued notification without approval of the Council of Common Interest (CCI) before issuing the notification. It may be remembered that these regulatory bodies were placed under the cabinet division by various governments in the past to ensure that they enjoyed independence in decision-making instead of being subservient to the ministries for routine administrative issues like approval of leave, visits abroad and appointments. According to sources, the decision was the result of the resistance by two key regulators — NEPRA and OGRA—, who had been expressing dissent in implementing directives of the relevant ministries on matters of public interest, particularly tariff issues. The ministries of water and power and petroleum had been regularly complaining to the prime minister about these regulators, the sources said.
It was particularly pointed out that without changing the regulatory environment, the Nandipur power project and Sahiwal coal-fired project would never become economically viable and the regulators would not allow higher system losses in electricity and gas distribution to be passed on to the consumers. Likewise, major energy projects would continue to face challenges, putting into question the government’s commitment of ending energy shortfall by 2018, it was feared.
Therefore, the subject of transfer of administrative control of the regulators was first put on the agenda of the 16 December 2016 meeting of the Council of Common Interests (CCI) but was opposed in writing by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief minister who said the critical matter of public importance, having far-reaching consequences for his province, should not be decided upon in haste and should be withdrawn from the agenda. According to informed sources, the summary was officially withdrawn from the agenda. The issue was nevertheless taken up through a presentation, despite not being on the agenda, and the proposal was opposed by the Sind and KP governments. The provinces were told to study the proposals that entailed comprehensive amendments to the respective law and that the issue would be formally taken up for a decision in the next CCI meeting after input from legal experts.
Meanwhile, the prime minister was advised that he had the powers under the rules of business to take decisions on the issues relating to “allocation of business/charge or responsibilities” of the federal ministries under Rule 3(3) of the Rules of Business, 1973 while matters relating to “transactions” of the federal government could be decided by the cabinet, the CCI or parliament, as the case might be. Under Rule 3(3), “The business of government shall be distributed among the divisions in the manner indicated in Schedule II: provided that the distribution of business or the constitution of the division may be modified from time to time by the prime minister”.
As a consequence, the five regulatory bodies were removed from Entry 53 of the Cabinet Division’s Schedule II and placed under the respective ministries. After the Lahore and Islamabad High Courts had overturned the decision, the Government has decided to implement the same again. Regulators are considered as independent bodies to ensure a strict check on functioning of concerned Government Ministries with regards to safeguarding common man’s interests in particular and society’s interests in general. As per Rules of Business, 1973, Regulatory Bodies have been placed under Cabinet Division to ensure neutrality and impartiality.
The consequences of the government’s decision to place the Regulatory Bodies under the concerned ministries means that the ministries will operate without any accountability and will manipulate the decisions of the Regulatory Bodies. Additionally, the Federal government will be able to politically influence these Regulatory Bodies for their own financial and political gains. This decision will provide a manoeuvring space to Government in managing a lot of funds for preparation of next election.
Under the new arrangement, common man’s interests will no more be protected. Current decision of Federal Government shows the disrespect to the democratic norms by completely ignoring people’s right by the government, which was put in place by the people’s choice in ballot. The said decision will also give a clear message by simply paralysing the functionality of different Government departments including CCI. Institutions like PTA and FAB are very sensitive and by politicising such departments would have negative effects including compromising security. It is hoped that the decision will be reverted to ensure the respect and honour of the judiciary and the interests of the people.
—The writer is retired PAF Group Captain and a TV talk show host.