Sugar commission ‘acted fairly’, IHC detailed verdict

Dismisses claim report smeared mills reputation; says court cannot interfere in affairs of executive


Saqib Bashir July 14, 2020

ISLAMABAD:

The Islamabad High Court (IHC) has issued a detailed verdict explaining the reasons for rejecting sugar mill owners’ petition against formation of a sugar inquiry commission and for allowing the government to take action on basis of the commission’s reports.

The sugar inquiry commission – headed by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) chief – was formed to probe into a sudden shortage of sugar that resulted in a steep hike in its prices in January this year.

In its preliminary report – unveiled on April 5 – the commission had claimed that sugar mills belonging to the families of the country’s top politicians including PML-N’s Shehbaz Sharif, PTI’s Jahangir Tareen and Khusro Bakhtiar and PML-Q’s Moonis Elahi were among the beneficiaries of the crisis.

In its forensic report – issued on May 21 – the commission had accused the sugar mill owners of earning illegal profits to the tune of billions of rupees through unjustified price hikes, benami transactions, tax evasion, misuse of subsidy and purchasing sugarcane off the books.

The Pakistan Sugar Mills Association (PSMA) and 17 other petitioners challenged the commission and its reports in the IHC, whose single bench comprising Chief Justice Athar Minallah on June 20 disposed of the petition and declared that the inquiry commission was legal. 

Sugar mills owners later moved an intra-court appeal in the IHC, requesting it to set aside its June 20 order and an IHC division bench – comprising Justice Aamer Farooq and Justice Miangul Hassan Aurangzeb – on July 10 declared the appeal “maintainable” and issued notices to the respondents.

The IHC chief justice on Monday issued a 35-page detailed verdict which said shortages and price increases of sugar have remained a matter of great concern for governments as such factors have led to strong reactions by consumers and have had adverse consequences for governments.

It said sugar is an integral part of the quality of life for people and its availability at an affordable price inevitably attracts the constitutional guaranteed right to life under Article 9 of the Constitution.

It said whenever there is a shortage of an essential commodity in the market or there is an increase in its price, government is not only expected to fulfill its constitutional obligations but it becomes a duty to discover its reasons and to take appropriate measures to alleviate sufferings of people.

“[Therefore] the sugar crisis, which had led the prime minster to order a preliminary inquiry and appoint an ad hoc committee followed by notification of a statutory commission of inquiry by the federal government were exclusively executive functions.

“It was indeed a definite matter of public importance, besides being a matter of general interest and of direct and vital concern for the general public,” the judgment noted.

The IHC also rejected the sugar mills owners claim that the inquiry commission aimed at tarnishing their reputation and noted that the inquiry reports rather than tarnishing reputation of mills had raised serious questions about persons holding public offices in the current government

“The observations made regarding a current chief executive of a province ought to be a concern for the latter because it may have reputational consequences for him.

“The commission of inquiry had indeed acted fairly and had made the report 'with courage and frankness'. By no stretch of the imagination can it be implied that the proceedings, the conduct of the members of the commission of inquiry or the report itself reflected apparent bias.

The order, however, noted that the Supreme Court has declared that the federal government is the collective entity described as cabinet, consisting of the prime minister and the federal ministers.

“The secretary, a minister, nor the prime minister are the federal cabinet and thus the exercise or purported exercise of a statutory power vested in the federal government by one of them is constitutionally invalid and a nullity in the eyes of the law,” it added.

 

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