The Senate of Pakistan, the upper house of Parliament, commemorated its Foundation Day yesterday. The Senate of Pakistan is a constitutional institution which represents all federating units i.e. provinces/territories of the country and promotes a feeling of equality, peace and harmony, which is essential for the growth and prosperity of a nation. Thus, the Senate in Pakistan, over the years, has emerged as an essential organ and a stabilising factor of the federation. It is also acting as permanent legislative body which symbolises a process of the continuity of the national affairs.

The role of the Senate is the promotion of national interconnection and integrity, harmony and confidence building of the smaller federating units so that their rights are protected in an effective way. The main objectives for the creation of the Senate of Pakistan was to give equal representation to all the federating units since the membership of the National Assembly is based on the population of each Province.

In contrast with India, which opted for a bicameral parliament on 28 July 1947 and established a Senate known as Council of States or Raja Sabah, Pakistan was had a unicameral parliamentary system. The 1970 Assembly framed the 1973 Constitution which was promulgated on 14th August 1973. The 1973 Constitution provided for a parliamentary form of Government with a bicameral legislature, comprising of the National Assembly and the Senate. The membership of the Senate, which was originally 45, was raised to 63 in 1977 and to 87 in 1985. The membership of the Senate was again raised from 87 to 100 in 2002.

Ethnic diversity, cultures, languages, and geographical make up of Pakistan necessitated an institutional structure reflecting pluralism. The way, in which the 1973 Constitution was conceived, it was envisioned by the framers that with diverging interests of different ethnic groups, Pakistan required a system of federal bicameralism instead of a unicameral legislature (unlike 1956 and 1962 constitutions). Bicameralism is considered the easiest way to accommodate the dualist structure of the state, as it is a method of representing popular national interests and state and regional interests at the same time.

Realising the importance of the vital role of the Senate for strengthening the federation, within the last year special initiatives were undertaken for real empowerment of the Senate and its parliamentary outreach. These steps included the formation of a mechanism for the implementation of Senate directives, a more vibrant and effective business advisory committee, discussion on the annual reports of Council of Common Interests (CCI), allocation of time for discussion over special issues of national and public importance, processing public petitions submitted by ordinary citizens, publication and launching books on constitutionalism, interaction with academia, university students, live webcasting of senate proceedings and research support to the house through attachment of Young Parliamentary Associates. These initiatives need to be continued with more additional and innovative steps.

Parliamentary Committees have a vital role in the Parliamentary System and act as a vibrant link between the Parliament, the Executive and the general public. These committees need to play a more proactive active for executive accountability, effective implementation of constitutional provisions especially relating to protection of fundamental rights guaranteed to citizens of Pakistan from Articles 8 to 28 of the Constitution of Pakistan.

Even after a lapse of 6 years since historic 18th Constitutional Amendment in 2010, its effective implementation is still in limbo. The real fruits of decentralisation, devolution of power and empowerment of people at the grass-roots level still cannot be availed by Pakistani citizens. In spite of unanimous decisions of the multi-party Constitutional Implementation Commission headed by Senator Mian Raza Rabbani, some of the critical issues still remain unresolved i.e joint ownership of natural resources, establishment of Commission on Standards in Higher Education and Research, policy regulation and supervisory control of Council of Common Interests over the subjects enlisted in the Federal Legislative List Part II, such as railways, standards in higher education, federal regulatory bodies, census, electricity, railway, legal, medical and professions, etc. About 48 identified federal laws have still not been amended in line with the Constitution of Pakistan.

The Senate being the custodian of the federation of Pakistan needs to pay attention to these pending critical issues immediately. The formation of a Special Committee on devolved subjects is an appreciable decision but the committee needs to deliberate and meet on a regular basis to resolve these outstanding issues. As a vast majority of senators are elected by the respective provincial assemblies, which act as an Electoral College, they also need to review the progress of the provincial governments in terms of the effective of implementation of the 18th Constitutional Amendment and transfer of powers to local bodies. It has been generally observed that the provincial governments are quite slow in the implementation of the 18th Constitutional Amendment, which resolved issues pertaining to provincial autonomy to a great extent.

The recent decision of the inclusion of six members from the Senate in the Public Accounts Committee is also laudable and will be helpful in strengthening the federation of Pakistan as parliamentarians from smaller provinces would get more representation for oversight over financial matters of government. The reforms undertaken by Senate itself for its empowerment and parliamentary outreach within the last one year are also encouraging.

The Senate of Pakistan should also play its role for the implementation of Article 38(G) of the Constitution of Pakistan, which ensures the shares of the provinces in all federal services including federal autonomous bodies and corporations. It can also assist in addressing the grievances of smaller provinces regarding the CPEC and other projects. The Senate should also continue regular engagements and interaction with academia for effective input and healthy debates on various national and regional issues. The topics related to working and role of Senate should also be incorporated across all tiers of education.

A vibrant Senate is vital in strengthening Pakistan as a federal country.

The writer National Coordinator with the Inter-university Consortium for Promotion of Social Sciences Pakistan, an autonomous alliance of Pakistani universities.