Balochistan Assembly: a Critical View

 This article was originally published in weekly The Friday Times on October 11, 2013

Beyond the grand debate on mightier political issues, broad constitutional reforms and rights violations by state institutions, Balochistan’s development and its people’s well being could have partly been ensured by strengthening democratic governance and the way governance institutions work.

Amongst the wider debates on political rights of the people of Balochistan, an important point is often missed – the importance of the day-to-day governance that affects the people the most, and more often. Especially when a people continue to suffer marginalization and discrimination embedded in the entire polity and structure of the state.

An elected provincial assembly is the key democratic institution that carries most of the burden of responsibility for overseeing the decision-making process by governing institutions. A strong assembly would not only make laws, but also ensure an effective oversight of government actions, substantially debating the policies and seeking timely corrective measures.

The very purpose of a legislative body gets defeated when all dissent is dissolved through political tactics, and even a thin possibility of oversight is removed

Looking at the track record of the two previous tenures of Balochistan Assembly, one gets a glimpse of the viciousness of the cycle that bad governance is. The very purpose of a legislative body gets defeated when all dissent is dissolved through political tactics, and even a thin possibility of oversight is removed.

Dissent in a legislature is manifest in the face of effective and meaningful opposition as well as independence of the members from even the treasury benches. Members’ freedom to hold opinions based on their objective analysis is key for a meaningful oversight, which unfortunately is dangerously lacking in Pakistan’s political parties across the board. But Balochistan is a special case as far as democracy index and legislative performance is concerned.

For two consecutive terms, from 2002 to 2013, Balochistan Assembly has had almost no opposition benches. In 2002, the entire House was treasury, while in 2008 only three members constituted the opposition. Almost the entire House was the provincial cabinet. Contrary to the popular belief that the only opposition in the assembly was offered by a Rind sardar, his name did not appear on the official record of opposition. The assembly record reveals three members as opposition, whose names were Pir Abdul Qadir Gilani, Tariq Magsi and Zulfiqar Domki. Weak or no opposition ensures free playing field for the government. When almost every member is part of the government, there exists a vested interest in not raising various issues that the legislature is mandated to debate on.

But this was not the only problem that the Balochistan Assembly has had. Committees are considered the eyes and ears of the legislatures. They are responsible for carrying out legislative as well as oversight business for the House. It is a parliamentary committee that ensures legislative proposals under consideration are assessed in detail, analyzed and minutely scrutinized before presenting to the House for approval to become law. Committees also make the incumbent government accountable for its actions and decisions. One cannot imagine how a House could function without any committees. In Balochistan Assembly’s 2008-2013 tenure, no committees were constituted.

Not that the House missed the committees too much. The assembly carried out very little legislative business. The assembly passed only four bills and around 30 amendments in five years. Needless to say, they were passed without any debate. Individual members did not take part in legislative business, as there is no tradition of Private Members Bills in Balochistan Assembly. The entire legislative responsibilities are on the government’s shoulders. Whenever a bill is tabled, it is passed within moments with members present on the benches. All laws are passed using an obnoxious Rule 84 of the Rules of Business of the Provincial Assembly of Balochistan, which allows the government to avoid the committees stage and pass the law instantly. When some members were interviewed, they were clueless about the standard legislative procedures. Many of them didn’t even understand the concept of Private Members Bills and had little idea about their right (and duty) to generate legislative business through tabling bills responding to the needs of their constituents.

Ziaul Haq “transformed legislators into municipal workers”

Some members felt strongly about the development funds given to every one of them. A member from Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PMAP) said the trend started when late military dictator Ziaul Haq “transformed legislators into municipal workers”. Another member from the National Party said he felt increasingly frustrated about how a member was converted into an “ATM machine” [sic]. That is probably why the new government in Balochistan has decided to do away with these funds and instead go for block allocations, so that the money could be utilized for the benefit of people rather than to serve political agendas or land in private pockets.

This reminds me of at least two members from the previous mandate. There was something peculiar about the way they spent their development funds in the last year of their tenure. One of them established a grand Madrassa in his constituency, while the other ended up constructing a monument at a crossing in Quetta “as a tribute to the martyrs of Pakistan Army”. Asked what kind of research or constituency work was carried out before making these creative ideas their ‘development projects’, the legislators looked at me like I was from Mars.

Research is a foreign word to Balochistan Assembly. Members have no technical or research assistance by the state. There are no Constituency Offices established anywhere in Pakistan, let alone Balochistan, where voters could reach out to their representatives. Members’ homes are unofficial and undeclared constituency offices.

To my horror, I also discovered that there had not been any Public Accounts Committee reports in the Balochistan Assembly. Public Accounts Committees ensure scrutiny of government expenditure. Since 1973, only two ad hoc reports of the PAC have come out – during the dictatorial regimes of Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf. In the second report, which came out during Musharraf’s dictatorship, around 77 objections were raised by the ad hoc PAC that consisted of technocrats as opposed to elected members of the provincial assembly. None of these objections could ever be taken forward for corrective action by the executive branch.

After some good things happened following this year’s elections in Balochistan, hopes have escalated. But the fact that the province is going on without a cabinet indicates that parliamentary committees are not likely any time soon. If it is going to be business as has been in past two mandates, it is safe to say that the elections have brought no change. Any talk of development in Balochistan will remain cosmetic without basic mechanisms to ensure democratic governance.

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