LAHORE - If the Question Hour in Punjab Assembly is about the Food department, the Opposition should not bother to grill the Food Minister. Opposition members just need to ask questions and leave the rest to the Speaker. Successive Assembly sessions have proved that Parvez Elahi is better prepared to deal with Samiullah Ch as compared to the Opposition.

It may be a breach of members’ privilege, but it is true that Parvez Elahi would ask all the supplementary questions by himself. He would even hold him accountable for the matters the Opposition would never have desired for.   

At the onset of Monday’s Question Hour, it was a pre-determined fact for many that Samiullah Ch will be facing the usual grilling at the hands of the worthy Speaker. However, nobody had imagined the magnitude.

But it would not be wrong to say that the Food Minister asked for it. It was like a red rag to a bull telling the Assembly Speaker to present proofs of overcharging by the Food Authority in the House if he had any. In saying so, the Food Minister was surely treating the custodian of the House like an ordinary member.

“How dare you talked to me like this. I am the Speaker. Now sit down and don’t utter a word. You have no permission [from the Chair] to speak any more. I am not allowing you to speak”, the Minister received a stern rebuke from the Chair not heard before in the present Assembly. Anger was writ large on Speaker’s face.

Before this episode, the Speaker had simply told the Minister that FDA chairman was exercising arbitrary powers of imposing fines to owners of noted restaurants and food chains in Punjab. “How could the FDA impose fines as high as one million rupees when it had no authenticated laboratory of its own, and was working without the help of food technologists?”, the Chair observed. He also told the House that PCSIR was the only laboratory with expertise to analyze the food samples.

Parvez Elahi wanted the FDA to follow the international standards. In foreign countries, he noted, the authorities would first issue the warnings to owners of restaurants and then impose fines afterwards according to the law.   

After giving a shut up call to the Food Minister, Parvez Elahi then turned to Law Minister Mohammad Basharat Raja and asked him to do something about it. The Speaker also told him that officials from Tetra Pack and Macdonald came to him and complained against the FDA and its chairman’s unchecked powers to impose fines. Law Minister agreed that fines for different violations may be specified in law rather than leaving it to the FDA Chairman. 

In the meanwhile, PTI legislator Salim Sarwar Khan intervened into the discussion but only to cause embarrassment to the Treasury. “Mr Speaker, this practice [of imposing fines to restaurants] is going on since the tenure of previous government. “FDA staff would collect money through fines and send it to Raiwind [for the rulers]”, he remarked. Malik Arshad of the PML-N was quick to respond with a befitting reply. “It implies that the fine money is now being sent to Banigala”, he jibed at the PTI lawmaker who was left with no answer to act in response.       

Also, the House witnessed an individual protest from a PML-N member who was upset for not getting a satisfactory answer to his question. Malik Arshad wanted the Food Minister to explain to him the formula which determined the minimum food security reserve [of wheat] amounting to one million metric tons. As the minister sought time to know the logic behind it, the PML-N lawmaker yelled at the Minister questioning his abilities as a Minister. This time, the Speaker also took a lenient view of Minister’s inability to explain the things and also asked Malik Arshad to let it go. But the PML-N legislator was not ready to relent. He tore apart copies of the agenda and started speaking loudly with his mike switched off. Some of his colleagues also tried to stop him but he refused to oblige them. The Minister also stood up to pay him in the same coin. At this point, their supporters also joined the fray.

The Speaker failed to restore order in the House, and yet he decided to take up official business amid sloganeering which picked up momentum when the law minister introduced the local government bill in the House. Loud voices of disapproval rose from the Opposition benches but the Speaker was done with it by that time.