Punjab Assembly passes Rs168bn supplementary budget

LAHORE: Applying guillotine after a brief debate, the Punjab Assembly on Thursday passed Rs168 billion supplementary budget with a majority vote and prorogued itself for an indefinite period – but only after some embarrassing moments of quorum crisis and opposition boycotting the proceedings in the end.

Provincial Finance Minister Ayesha Ghaus Pasha began discussion on the budget when she stood up to say: “The actual size of the supplementary budget is Rs73 billion in the entire amount of Rs168bn being presented for approval, which makes only four per cent of the budget”.

The rest of the money belongs to next the supplementary budget of Punjab and, what she called, as technical supplementary budget. “Some projects, which come near completion, have to be finished off with additional allocation, which is more of a necessity,” she explained the outlay of the budget.

The opposition, however, was not ready to buy the explanation. Out of four speakers who took turn on the supplementary budget, Mian Aslam Iqbal was more eloquent: “Supplementary budgets are normally avoided when democratic institutions are in place. In Punjab, it is more of a routine because someone is spending at will and diverting resources due to personal and political reasons, violating fiscal discipline. Last year, it were Rs154 billion, this year Rs168 billion – both time under the same finance minister.

“The page 681 of the budget document states that Rs20.79 billion were diverted from development to non-development heads. Who authorised it and and how? How a hospital built with public funds can be christened after the chief minister and money diverted to it through the supplementary budget? As low as Rs1.3 million for purchase of cell phones for government officials are part of supplementary budget, which the finance minister is restricted to contingencies only. What kind of contingencies are Rs51 million Spring Festival at Greater Iqbal Park and Rs50 million inauguration of a power plant? The government is only hiding its sins in the budget,” he said.

Three other opposition members also spoke but none of them succeeded in getting his proposal approved by the treasury. Rejecting all cut motions by the opposition, the house went for formal approval of 141 requests for funds by the government but only after the finance minister stood again to explain that 86 per cent of the supplementary budget belongs to a policy area, called the local bodies.

“If the opposition thinks that the government should have been wise enough to anticipate coming local governments and allocate money for them, it has a point. But the issue was that only the Provincial Finance Commission (PFC) could have decided the level of administrative and financial autonomy these institutions were to be given. The PFC has developed non-discretionary and totally independent criteria for funds diversion. It is based on population density, level of development and poverty as guiding principles for the funds. Number of children and women at productive age also form a benchmark. The opposition has failed to notice 86 per cent of allocation and has gone after 14 per cent allocation. That is why I request the chair to reject all objections of the opposition and pass the budget.”

And it was all done in the next few minutes. Though the opposition tried to hinder the process by pointing out quorum, but it was quickly met because the government, knowing the tactics, has its numbers in place. The rest of grants were approved without debate and the house was prorogued indefinitely.