Pakistani expert unpacks CPEC Authority ordinance, terms it a step in right direction

Hasaan khawar The EU DisinfoLab’s story, uncovering a massive Indian propaganda operation against Pakistan, broke out only two months ago. But anyone who was following the global chatter on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) knew much earlier that international media was rife with unsubstantiated and often factually wrong stories about the corridor. The cat is now out of the bag, but such fabricated stories continue to appear. In recent days, the CPEC Authority legislation has provided ample fodder for such stories.

Nikkie Asia report says that Pakistan Army would get sweeping powers through the CPEC Authority law, undermining civilian supremacy. The South Asia Monitor has reported that the Authority’s chairman and other officials will have immunity from investigations by NAB and FIA, while another news report suggests that the Joint Cooperation Committee would now be headed by the chairman, instead of the Minister for Planning, Development and Reform.

None of this is of course true.

The CPEC Authority was created through an ordinance in 2019 that expired last year. The CPEC Authority Bill 2020 was recently passed by the National Assembly and has yet to get the Senate’s approval. If anything, the new law is a definite improvement over the previous ordinance.

Let’s unpack this draft legislation.

The JCC is still co-chaired by the Minister for Planning and Vice Chairperson of China’s National Development and Reform Commission. The law does not provide any role for the army, and clearly mandates the Authority to work under the ambit of CPEC’s Long Term Plan and JCC’s decisions.

The Authority with a total of nine members, including the chairperson, has to take all decisions by majority vote. There is no special voting privilege for the chairperson. Previously, the Authority reported to the Ministry of Planning, but now it will directly report to the Prime Minister. The earlier introduced position of CEO has been removed in the new legislation, which will reduce bureaucracy.

The functions of the Authority as per the earlier ordinance included coordination, monitoring and evaluation of CPEC projects, but under the new law, three new words — planning, facilitating and enforcing — have also been added. The word ‘enforcing’ may create some confusion, as individual CPEC projects will still be managed by respective ministries. Moreover, the ordinance earlier empowered the Authority to interface with the People’s Republic of China for identifying new projects, but the new law has narrowed this down to interaction with the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) only.

Previously, the Authority had the power to call for information and impose a penalty on any person for non-compliance. Under the new law, while the Authority can still call for information, it can no longer impose any penalty.

There is no special immunity provided to CPEC Authority officials, and NAB and FIA aren’t even mentioned. The law contains a standard indemnity clause, which was wrongly labelled as ‘immunity’ under the previous ordinance, to protect actions taken in good faith. This is a fairly standard clause. In fact, the civil servants enjoy the exact same indemnity under Section 23A of the Civil Servants Act 1973.

Interestingly, all CPEC Authority officials under the law will be considered public servants and will be subjected to Pakistan Penal Code’s stipulated offences for public servants, under Sections 161 to 171, including corruption. Another section of the law mandates audit of CPEC Authority by the Auditor General of Pakistan, similar to any other government entity. In addition, the law includes a conflict-of-interest clause, which is a good measure to ensure transparency.

The CPEC Authority law is a fairly standard piece of legislation, which has nothing controversial in it. It is just an enabling law to create a new institution, a slightly more empowered body than the previous CPEC Project Directorate, to facilitate CPEC projects, and nothing more.

Staff reporter