The common interest

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The Council of Common Interest (CCI) met under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister, as required by the constitution, and decided to hold the population and housing census in March next year. The Population Census Organisation (PCO) on its website maintains that it successfully completed the 2011 housing listing operation and gave the tentative schedule for population and housing census for March/April 2012. In addition, PCO website claims that 84 district-wise reports on basic population and housing data by union councils have been published at the micro level, and notes “reports on 13 big cities with a population of 400,000 and above highlighting socio-economic and demographic features of urban centres and broad analysis of census data”. It is unfortunate that post-1998 census results continue to be widely regarded as unreliable.

Population and housing census is a decennial exercise with the last credible one in 1998, when the Nawaz Sharif government was in power. There is no doubt that the census provides a powerful tool to the government of the day to take appropriate decisions and/or formulate strategies linked with changing demographics that have political as well as economic implications – political because their results are used for the delineation of national and provincial assemblies, and economic because the results are used to ascertain the distribution of resources through the National Finance Commission awards and quota fixation of jobs. Thus the CCI decision must be fully supported and one would hope that this time around the government actually proceeds with the constitutionally-mandated exercise as scheduled.

A press release issued by the government with respect to the decisions taken during the CCI maintained that the debt to Gross Domestic Product ratio has been brought down from 64 to 62 percent in less than two years and committed that by the end of June 2016 it would be brought down to 60 percent of the GDP as stipulated in the Fiscal Responsibility and Debt Limitation Act 2005. The statement to this effect was made by Federal Finance Minister Ishaq Dar who is a member of the CCI, however, what is unclear is why he chose this forum to make his claim. According to the Act, the government of the day can deviate from meeting its debt-to-GDP target on the basis to be determined by the National Assembly (and not the CCI) for example, the house premising on natural calamity or national security. In addition, the press release’s claim makes little sense as the debt-to-GDP ratio in 2012 – the last full year of the PPP-led coalition government’s tenure was 60.1 percent – while it rose dramatically in 2013, the first half year of the incumbent government to 64.3 percent reflecting the considerable increase in borrowing undertaken by the Dar-led Finance Ministry. In 2014, the debt-to-GDP ratio was 63.3 percent and given the current rate of borrowing it seems unlikely that the government would be able to contain the debt-to-GDP ratio to 60 percent by June 2016.

The CCI approved the Pakistan Energy Efficiency and Energy Conservation Bill 2014, a bill whose approval is unlikely to improve the performance of the energy sector or indeed compel the government to begin implementing its own directives in letter and spirit. And the CCI also approved Pakistan Oil Rules, which will repeal the existing 1971 rules, and the establishment of the Halal Authority, which if the performance of other authorities is anything to go by, would simply raise the government’s administrative expenses without fuelling halal industry and exports.

The press release notes that the prime minister expressed his dissatisfaction with the pace of privatisation, directed Nepra to streamline its procedures and to establish yet another committee, though this time around under the chairmanship of Ahsan Iqbal, on the working of Higher Education Commission, and similar bodies in the provinces.

What is inexplicable is that none of the federal and provincial contentious issues formed part of the CCI agenda – issues whose resolution is critical for improvement in the performance of some sectors notably energy with respect to the federal adjustor as well as for smoothing out federal and provincial relations. It is about time that the CCI begins to not only debate issues rather than simply rubberstamping approval as desired by the federal government but also debate is acknowledged in government press releases as the first step towards promoting federal/provincial relations.