By Naseer Memon
IN a surprise move, Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani has constituted the Thar Coal Authority while abolishing all other agencies engaged in any business related to Thar coal, mainly the Thar Coal Mining Company and the Sindh Coal Authority.
This severe blow to provincial autonomy was announced on July 8 through a Cabinet Division notification (No 4-9/2008-Min 1). According to the notification, the Thar Coal Authority will be headed by the Sindh chief minister until a professional or a technocrat of eminence is appointed chairman by the provincial assembly. The federal minister for water and power has been named as the authority’s vice-chairman while its membership will be comprised by the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, the secretary of the water and power ministry, a provincial minister (to be nominated by the Sindh chief minister) and the chief secretary, Sindh.
The authority is meant to act as a one-stop organisation on behalf of all ministries/departme nts and agencies of the Government of Pakistan as well as those of the Government of Sindh. Another function of the newly formed body is to attract investment in coal mining and/or coal gasification in Thar and other areas of Sindh.
This arrangement was notified on behalf of the prime minister, who only a hundred or so days ago promised that greater provincial autonomy was one of his abiding commitments to the nation. Rather than abolishing the concurrent list to transfer more powers to the provinces, the government has instead abolished the Sindh Coal Authority which came into existence through an act of parliament and was governed by a board headed by the provincial minister for mines and mineral development.
It is strange that a body formed by an act of parliament was disbanded through a notification. Under the 1973 Constitution there are two legislative lists, namely the Federal Legislative List (parts I and II) and the Concurrent List. According to the constitution, items not listed in these two lists are provincial subjects. Since coal does not feature in any list, it is clearly a provincial subject. Hence only the province has the right to form such an authority or make any other institutional arrangement pertaining to the development of coal. The aforementioned notification is therefore constitutionally invalid.
The composition of the Thar Coal Authority is another area of concern. Four of the seven members directly represent the federal government. Strangely, neither the provincial minister for mining nor the secretary, mines and minerals, has been included in this very crucial body. The said ministry is directly responsible for Thar coal. The new authority’s composition clearly indicates the intentions of the federal government.
As mentioned earlier, the Thar Coal Authority is to attract investment in coal mining and/or coal gasification in Thar and elsewhere in Sindh. These resources are to be used for power generation or other purposes and an environment conducive to investment is to be created through bankable feasibility and other relevant studies.
Investment in Thar coal was not awaiting the formulation of such an agency, for the proposed project has fetched handsome offers since its inception. The source of the problem has been the federal government bodies that have consistently created hindrances in the way of investment. So much so that former Sindh Chief Minister Arbab Ghulam Rahim said that a lobby in Islamabad does not want investment in Thar coal.
This claim is borne out by the fact that Sindh recently received investment offers of $2.5bn from reputed national and international agencies in response to an invitation for expression of interest issued by the provincial mines and minerals department. The project has the potential to generate 1,000MW of power using Thar coal. Moreover, mining capacity can be expanded from six million tons to 30 million tons per year to generate 5,000MW. This shows that investors are more than willing participants in the development of Thar’s vast coal deposits.
The July 8 decision has put ministers and other elected representatives in an odd situation, particularly in Sindh which has been a traditional stronghold of the PPP. The notification has evoked deep resentment among the masses, nationalist groups and the intelligentsia of the province. Islamabad has a history of meddling in provincial affairs and Sindh has always been in the forefront of agitation against this attitude of the federal government. The Thar Coal Authority decision has also shocked government supporters who find it difficult to defend an act that is in blatant violation of the PPP’s own manifesto.
A far more pertinent move would have been to remove all barriers in the way of investment in Thar coal. The abolished Authority could also have been empowered by making it a one-stop facility, thereby achieving the very objectives envisaged in the notification.
Developing Thar coal is now seen as the key to ensuring sustainable energy supplies for the country. This objective cannot be achieved without a politically acceptable institutional arrangement. Contentious institutional arrangements will only weaken the already fragile relationship between the provinces and the federal government. Extending this approach to other smaller provinces will only trigger similar reactions, which the country can ill afford at this juncture.