ISLAMABAD: The Supreme Court has raised serious questions over the Sindh government's decision to ban business activities of entities and departments – which are regulated through the federal laws and which are paying taxes to the federation – as a preventive measure to stop coronavirus contagion.
Resuming hearing of a suo motu case on the pandemic, a five-judge larger – headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan Gulzar Ahmed – on Monday noted that the provinces cannot interfere in matters relating to trades and businesses which are liable to pay taxes to the federal government.
“How the provinces can ban services/businesses of those departments which are paying taxes to the federal government? Such decisions are negatively affecting revenue of the federation
“The 18th constitutional amendment has given more power to the provinces but they cannot interfere in the activities wherein the federation generates tits revenue,” the bench noted.
Appearing before the bench, Sindh advocate general referred to a six-year-old provincial law which permits closing of federal entities in case of a pandemic, the bench observed that it can only happen with permission of the president of Pakistan.
Govt’s handling of coronavirus outbreak irks SC
It also put a question mark on new provincial laws affecting such federal entities and hinted at examining provincial governments’ actions in view of Article 18 and 151(4) of Constitution.
Attorney General for Pakistan (AGP) Khalid Javed Khan told the bench that the federal government wants to resolve all these issues through negotiation and not through the court’s interference.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior lawyer said the apex court has given a clear message that the federation should be strengthened and it should not be weakened by any actions of the provinces.
However, he said, a larger bench comprising senior most SC judges should hear this matter.
The AGP also told the bench that a meeting of the National Coordination Committee (NCC) on coronavirus – that comprises federal and all provincial governments’ functionaries – will be held on May 9 to decide the opening of small business activities,” he added.
The bench, however, expressed dissatisfaction over the decisions taken by NCC and asked both the Centre and provinces to evolve a uniform policy on the pandemic, warning that otherwise it will pass an interim order to deal COVID-19 in the country
During the hearing, the chief justice also expressed serious reservation over transparency of the relief process in which billions of rupees are allegedly spend to control the pandemic.
“Nothing is being told as to how departments are working. Everything seems to be just paperwork. How can billions or rupees be spent on the purchase of masks and gloves? Things will become clear only after an audit,” CJ Gulzar said.
The court said the federal government should provide funds to the provincial governments as they have asked for extra funds to combat the spread of the virus.
The top judge said it seemed that the federal and provincial governments are conspiring against the people of the country. The bench also expressed dismay over the absence of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) officials during the hearing.
The bench asked the NDMA to submit complete details about foreign aid and its expenditure.
“A provincial minister says he will file a case against the prime minister. Is the federal government’s policy only limited to 25 kilometres [of the federal capital]” the CJ asked.
He expressed displeasure over the blame game played between Sindh provincial government and the federal government, and described the current condition as ‘incomprehensible’.
Justice Umar Ata Bandial noted that it seemed the executive is failing to deal the crisis. He laid emphasis on coordination between the federal and provincial governments in this matter.
Justice Sajjad Ali Shah questioned the executive decision to open masques but to keep businesses closed. Justice Qazi Muhammad Amin Ahmed raised questions over the Punjab government steps to deal pandemic in the province.
The court also expressed concern over massive irregularities in Zakat and Baitul Mall funds – detected by Auditor General of Pakistan. The CJ said if there is no transparency in Zakat fund which is meant for the poor then “we are numb”.
The court asked the federal and provincial governments to submit response over the auditor’s report. The bench will decide at the next hearing whether this matter should be referred to the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) or the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) for further probe.
Covid-19 facilities in Islamabad
In response to a query from the top judge regarding the Haji Camp quarantine centre, the health secretary said it was not being used during his visit.
“A room would be partitioned to accommodate four people. A 48-room girls’ hostel was designated as a quarantine centre by the Islamabad’s district administration.” The health secretary said ten thousand people are being tested daily for coronavirus and one thousand out of them are tested positive.”
The AGP, advocate generals of the provinces, officials of the Ministry of Health and other concerned departments also appeared in the court on behalf of the federal government. The bench will resume hearing of the case on May 18.