Friday May 24, 2024

Humbug of South Punjab Secretariat: Revolt by legislators averted for now

By Tariq Butt
April 03, 2021

ISLAMABAD: A threatened rebellion by federal and provincial ministers from South Punjab has forced Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar to rescind the measures taken by him that had rendered the South Punjab Secretariat dysfunctional.

All the federal and provincial ministers from southern Punjab ganged up and personally conveyed to the chief minister that he must annul the official notification that had virtually shut down the South Punjab Secretariat, failing which they would think again before supporting him.

Sensing the danger, Buzdar acted swiftly and withdrew the impugned order. The flood of notifications -- the setting up of the South Punjab Secretariat, its swift empowerment and defanging -- had become something of a joke over the past few days. The haphazard decision-making process reflected the dismal level of governance in the largest province.

The official record shows that the Punjab government has, for all practical purposes, now dispensed with the very objective of establishing the South Punjab Secretariat as a precursor to the creation of a new federating unit by dividing the majority province.

A notification issued by the provincial government and dated March 29, 2021, a copy of which is available with The News, had withdrawn the earlier empowerment and autonomous status of the South Punjab Secretariat. Although the office was not completely wound up, its powers and functions had been radically curtailed and it had been made subservient to the main Secretariat working in the provincial capital, Lahore.

The next day on March 30, the Punjab government issued another notification drastically curtailing the status and functions of the South Punjab Secretariat by amending the Punjab Rules of Business.

This provoked the federal and provincial ministers from South Punjab to exert pressure on the chief minister to back down. Buzdar retreated and promulgated another notification on April 1, withdrawing the March 29 notification as “void ab initio”. He has now formed a committee on the subject.

After a delay of over two years, the current government had created the South Punjab Secretariat, presenting it as a kind of substitute for a new province that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) had committed on the eve of the 2018 general elections while securing the support of the then Janoobi Subah Mahaz.

The Mahaz, comprising electables from the Saraiki belt, had merged into the PTI after signing an understanding that credible steps would be taken to carve out a new province out of Punjab. However, the front never talked about its demand after some of its key members secured cabinet positions. This merger of this group produced massive electoral dividends for the PTI.

The call for the creation of a new province in southern Punjab --as well as opposition to the move-- has always been a political slogan rather than a serious move to split Punjab into two federating units for administrative purposes to benefit its people. Previously, the Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) strongly supported the move and later the PTI indulged in this gameas well and benefited from it.

The March 30 four-page order issued by the Punjab chief secretary (CS) had cancelled the comprehensive 10-page notification promulgated on September 11, 2020, which had listed the functions, powers and duties of the South Punjab Secretariat and the bureaucrats deployed there.

The new notification had said that in exercise of the powers conferred under Article 139 of the Constitution read with rule 49 of the Punjab Rules of Business 2011, the provincial governor withdraws the notification No. SO(Cab-1)2-4/2020(S.P.) issued on September 11, 2020.

This notification had made certain amendments in the Punjab Government Rules of Business. According to it, a department of the South Punjab means an attached department in the South Punjab Secretariat; and its secretary means the head of that department.

South Punjab means the areas consisting of the revenue jurisdiction of districts Bahawalnagar, Bahawalpur, Dera Ghazi Khan, Khanewal, Layyah, Lodhran, Multan, Muzaffargarh, Rahim Yar Khan, Rajanpur and Vehari. The South Punjab Secretariat means the attached departments with the suffix, South Punjab, when referred to collectively.

The powers and functions of the additional chief secretary (ACS), South Punjab, had also been severely curtailed. He was asked to exercise such powers and functions as may be assigned to him by the CS. The secretary of a department, South Punjab, was to exercise powers and functions as may be assigned to him by the secretary [sitting in the Lahore Secretariat].

The September 2020 notification had stated that the ACS, South Punjab, will exercise all powers given under laws, notification and standing order of the government unless notified or directed otherwise by the CS. He will keep the CS informed of all the developments and act strictly in accordance with the instructions and directions conveyed to him by the CS.

The previous notification had stated that the chief minister may notify more than one department for conduct of business of the provincial government in districts and specified spheres for the same set of subjects in the public interest. The government, it said, may notify one or more secretariats in the province in the public interest.

ACS South Punjab Zahid Akhtar Zaman was transferred in February and his replacement has not yet been posted. This shows the lack of seriousness on the part of the provincial government and PTI to make the South Punjab Secretariat functional. Now, the under-pressure chief minister has announced that the ACS would be shortly appointed.

An official privy to these developments told The News that senior bureaucrats working closely with Buzdar had persuaded the chief minister to take back the original notification, failing which they convinced him that his powers and authority would stand diluted. There is also now not much interest in creating the South Punjab province at the top federal level, the official said.