KARACHI: When it comes to resolving public issues or improving infrastructure, Sindh’s lawmakers always have a ready excuse that there is no money. And yet, lawmakers continue to waste taxpayers’ funds on keeping the Sindh Assembly session running, despite the fact that no meaningful legislation or debate on public interest issues has taken place since the budget session in June.
The irony is that the Sindh government, which always cries foul over financial constraints, spends millions of rupees on a daily basis to run the session, while lawmakers pocket additional allowances even when nothing of substance comes of the session.
Not much ado
The current session, which commenced on June 12, is the longest in the provincial legislature’s history. Over the last 77 days, there has been little thought on drafting or debating laws or issues of public interest on the floor of the house.
According to the official record, a majority of the sittings in the current session have been simply adjourned in less than five minutes without taking up the agenda or discussing issues at hand.
The same was the case on Thursday, when the speaker, who is currently in the National Accountability Bureau’s custody and facing corruption charges, adjourned the session in merely a minute, citing lack of quorum.
According to members of the opposition, each day of the session costs the taxpayer around Rs5 million. This figure includes various allowances given to MPAs and assembly staff, electricity bills, stationery expenses and other overheads.
“There are a total of 168 MPAs. Whenever the assembly is in session, each MPA belonging to a rural area is entitled to get Rs7000 as daily allowance which includes accommodation and entertainment costs,” an official working in the Sindh Assembly’s accounts department explained to The Express Tribune. “Besides, Rs20 per kilometre is given to those MPAs travelling to Karachi from various districts as travel allowance. All this is beside the monthly consolidated salary of each MPA, which stands at Rs147,000.”
The official, who asked not to be named, lamented that most MPAs hailing from rural areas are quite well-off and have their own residences in Karachi. “Despite this, they get accommodation and travel allowances,” he said. “If an MPA is elected from Ghotki and spends time in Karachi during the session, we are bound to pay them the travel allowance by calculating the distance between their constituency and the Sindh Assembly,” said the official.
With regard the lawmakers living in Karachi, the official said, “Each MPA who lives in the city gets Rs2000 daily as conveyance and daily allowance.” Since most of the sittings start late in the afternoon or evening, the government also pays overtime and allowances to all assembly staff.
The real reason
The prolonged session started after Speaker Agha Siraj Durrani was arrested by the NAB in corruption cases. Speaking to The Express Tribune, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s parliamentary leader in the Sindh Assembly, Haleem Adil Sheikh, said that the session has been prolonged due to the NAB cases against PPP leaders, ministers and MPAs. “There are serious charges against CM Murad Ali Shah and 39 MPAs of his party. They have continued the session to meet political objectives of issuing production orders for the MPAs to attend the session at the cost of taxpayers’ money,” he claimed. “They know very well that the Sindh Governor will not summon another session so soon if they prorogue it. This is the only reason they have continued it for the last two and a half months,” he remarked.
According to official documents, a staggering Rs730 million were allocated in the current fiscal year’s budget to meet the Sindh Assembly’s expenses, of which Rs100 million were set aside as development funds for the purchase of new cars, ACs and photocopiers. In the current session, the government also granted Rs40 million as a supplementary budget for the outgoing year [2018-19].
Speaking to The Express Tribune, Arif Mustafa Jatoi of the Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) said that it was “fear” that had led the government to prolong the session. “They can do nothing except adopt resolutions against the NAB and the federal government,” he said.
With regard the daily expenses, Jatoi said: “I think the Rs5 million is a little exaggerated. The total amount, including the assembly’s expenses, range between Rs2.5 million to Rs3 million per day.”
Despite several attempts, officials in the Sindh Assembly refused to give the exact figure of the amount being spent on the assembly session every day. Interestingly, the PPP’s Nisar Khuhro, who was the opposition leader in the Sindh Assembly during General Musharraf’s tenure [from 2002 to 2007], used to criticise the then government for spending Rs1 million daily on the assembly for doing nothing.
PPP stays mum
The PPP’s minister for parliamentary affairs, Mukesh Chawla, avoided speaking on the issue even though most MPAs and ministers of his party referred to him for details on the subject.
Meanwhile, Sindh Assembly Secretary GM Umer Farooq said that there was no provision in the rules which bound the government from extending a session. When asked about the daily expenditure, he said, “I can give you the proper figure at this moment.” To another question about the last two months’ allowances being given to MPAs, he said, “They are entitled to receive allowances for all days of the month if the session continues without a break.” He added, however, that the parliamentary days weren’t counted if there was a gap of two or more days between the sittings.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 30th, 2019.