Jul 27, 2009

People's parliament

Formation of the petition committee by the Sindh assembly is a historical decision
By Fateh Marri
Ruled mostly by the military, Pakistan has remained under democratic deficit. Though the democratic tenures have been abrupt but we have followed the parliamentary form of government. Democracy has remained weak as per constitutional provisions and practices -- be it the interim constitution of 1947, 1965 constitution where the prime minister worked with the consent of the president. The 1973 consensus constitution was put under abeyance in 1977.
Democracy cannot work if it is only put as word in the constitutions but it requires commitment, systems, structures, practices and values. Modern democratic states realise democratic principles through complex institutions and practices including a guaranteed framework of citizen rights called the constitution, institutions of representative, transparent and accountable government the parliament, active civil society, free media, political parties and all other interfacing institutions. Among all the democratic institutions the parliament plays an anchor role. The functions of parliament include legislation, approval of taxation and expenditure (generally in context to national budget), ratification of treaties (inter or intra state treaties), oversight on executive actions, policies and personnel, approving constitutional changes and amendments, debating on issues of national interest and international importance and hearing and redressing grievances of citizens.
The parliamentary committees are considered to be the backbone of the parliament. National Assembly strengthened the committee system after the adoption of 'Conduct of Business and Rules of Procedures' in 1992. Parliamentary committees in Pakistan are formed under Rule 198-245.
Invoking the function of hearing and redressing grievances of citizens by the parliament, speaker Sindh assembly while addressing a conference in Karachi titled Parliamentarians and Civil Society Interface announced to form a petition committee in comprising members of the Sindh assembly for public hearing and redressing grievances of citizens.
A petition may be defined as compliant, a demand for action or a request for review. The Petition Committee of the Sindh assembly would examine the matters raised by citizens and take appropriate action. The petition committee is expected to deal the matters of general concern, individual complaints and requests for collective stances on any area of public interest.
Formation of the petition committee by the Sindh assembly is not only a historical decision welcomed by the public and the civil society but it will also have positive effect on the democratic institutions. Petition committee of Sindh is expected to make the parliament accessible to the people of the province. This is a road towards participatory democracy where people can claim, practice and enjoy direct democracy.
The process of formation of petition committee requires defining the powers, roles and responsibilities with corresponding institutions and systems for its effective functioning. The committee will also require standard but flexible operating procedures. This committee may be authorized to hear the public grievances and complaints, people's proposals for legislation and requests for review of existing laws and rules.
Direct democracy, classically termed as pure and participatory democracy, is form of government where all citizens can directly participate in the state decision making processes. Participatory and direct democracy is best practised in a federation by provinces or states like it is successfully practised in United States. People's initiatives in US are measured by citizen-sponsored ballot (known as "ballot question" or "propositions") culminated in referendums if supported by the majority. Switzerland can be taken as an example, having 240 people's initiatives for referendum on public interest matters in 120 years showing on average two peoples initiatives per annum.
Referendums and binding referendums in different states of US can decide whether the given law should be scrapped. State referendums enable populace a veto on government legislation. Recall is right to people to recall elected officials by petitions and referendums. Above brief account of parliamentary functions of mature democracies exhibit that they have designed, created and practised democratic structures and institutions for their accountability and transparency and, provisions for peoples participation in parliamentary processes in addition to accountability of political parties and politicians through tenure-based elections.
We in Pakistan are lagging behind these first-world democracies where initiatives, referendums and recalls are practised. Even Bangladesh as a younger democracy has both petition committee for people's access and privileges committee in their parliament. One hopes that the Sindh government will finalise all the operating procedures and mechanisms for petition committee and issues a gazette notification for the purpose. It should also influence other provincial and national governments for the formation of such committees. As, these committees would not only make parliaments accessible to the people but will improve governance accountability and transparency.

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