Lahore High Court (LHC) has recently asserted the provincial government’s authority to regulate the prices of essential food items, including sugar. The ruling, handed down by a two-judge bench consisting of Justice Shahid Karim and Justice Sultan Tanvir Ahmad, marks a pivotal moment in the ongoing debate over the jurisdiction and powers of federal and provincial governments in Pakistan.
The backdrop of this ruling was a set of petitions filed by sugar mills challenging the Price Control and Prevention of Profiteering & Hoarding Order, 2021, issued by the federal government under sections 3 and 4 of the Price Control and Prevention of Profiteering and Hoarding Act 1977. The mills contested the legislative competence of the federal government to enact such a law and its jurisdiction to determine sugar prices within the province of Punjab.
Position of Sugar Mills
The lawyers representing the appellants, the sugar mills, contended that the federal government did not possess the authority to fix sugar prices, emphasizing that they had never conceded to such a power. They argued that a previous single-judge bench ruling had correctly upheld the federal government’s authority under the 1977 Act.
Federal Government’s Defense
Deputy Attorney General Asad Ali Bajwa defended the federal government’s position, citing Article 151 of the Constitution in conjunction with entry 13 of the Federal Legislative List (FLL). He argued that the federal government’s intention was to establish price uniformity across all provinces, as it believed the power to reside in parliament.
LHC’s Landmark Decision
Justice Karim, in delivering the court’s ruling, emphasized that the intention of Article 151 did not grant such powers to parliament, nor were they conferred by the FLL’s entry 13. The judge pointed out that the 1977 Act dealt primarily with price control, a matter that falls under the exclusive jurisdiction of the provinces.
He asserted that parliament’s authority was limited to regulating inter-provincial trade and commerce, not the price control or fixation of essential commodities. Justice Karim stressed that each province is best suited to determine prices based on its unique circumstances, considering factors that vary from one region to another.
The judge noted that price control of essential commodities was not a constant requirement and could differ among provinces. Thus, the federal government’s blanket authority to control prices nationwide, without considering each province’s specific needs, was deemed unconstitutional.
In a groundbreaking decision, the Lahore High Court ruled that the power of parliament under the 1977 Act, pertaining to controlling prices of essential food commodities and preventing profiteering and hoarding in Punjab, was ultra vires. Additionally, the court declared the 1977 Act, as it applied nationwide, unconstitutional.
Consequences of the Ruling
The court’s decision has significant implications for the ongoing debate over federal versus provincial powers in Pakistan. It reinforces the principle that provinces are best equipped to manage essential food prices, as they have a deeper understanding of local conditions and needs. Moreover, it signals a move towards greater provincial autonomy in decision-making regarding essential commodities.
The Lahore High Court’s ruling represents a milestone in the evolving relationship between federal and provincial governments in Pakistan. It underscores the importance of devolving power to the provincial level and recognizing the unique circumstances that influence essential commodity prices. While the decision is specific to Punjab, it sets a precedent that may influence similar cases in other provinces, shaping the country’s approach to price control and governance in the years to come.