ISLAMABAD: The government managed on Tuesday to get a bill passed with support from the PPP, to levy a controversial gas tax amid a boisterous protest by an unlikely alliance of the MQM, PTI and the right-wing Jamaat-i-Islami.
In a classic sleight of hand, PPP lawmakers led the debate during the first part of the session on Tuesday, terming the Gas Infrastructure Development Cess (GIDC) Bill 2014, “a conspiracy to weaken the federation”. But, when it came to voting on the bill, they didn’t oppose it and let the MQM, PTI and JI do their job as opposition.
The GIDC bill now is likely to be laid before the Senate on Wednesday. With the ruling PML-N and opposition on the same page, the bill will certainly sail through the upper house. The bill allows the government to access about Rs100 billion lying in its account under the GIDC head. In the outgoing financial year, the government had set itself a target to collect Rs145bn under the said tax.
Soon after Petroleum Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi presented the motion for debate on the bill, it was PPP legislators who were at the forefront, pulling the government to pieces for bringing in such a “damaging piece of legislation” to the house. In fact, when the debate started, PPP’s Nafisa Shah cast the first stone, saying that the treasury benches were ignoring smaller provinces by introducing such an important tax.
“The main purpose of this tax, initially introduced by the PPP government in 2011, was to build the Pak-Iran gas pipeline, a project that the present government has shelved for the moment. What, then, is urgency of passing this bill,” Ms Shah asked. She also accused the PML-N government of following in the footprints of dictatorial regimes, completely sidelining the concerns of the opposition parties. Such a practice, she feared, would only add to the alienation and deprivation of smaller provinces.
People’s Party MNAs first opposed the bill but later voted for it
PTI’s Dr Arif Alvi said that convening an emergency session of the National Assembly for a tax which will have an overriding effect all over the country was tantamount to “making a mockery of the democratic process”.
“Earlier, we were told that the government will hold consultations among parliamentary parties to generate consensus over this tax, but to no avail.” The best forum to discuss such controversial taxes, Dr Alvi suggested, was the Council of Common Interests (CCI).
Referring to the articles 77 (regarding levy of taxes) and 153 (dealing with the CCI), MQM’s Dr Farooq Sattar explained that levying the tax would be a violation of the Constitution. “If the government goes ahead with this tax, it will set a bad precedent, allowing the central government to effectively interfere in provincial affairs.”
JI’s Sahibazada Tariqullah termed the bill “an International Monetary Fund (IMF)-driven agenda”, which the present government was busy implementing day in day out, making people’s lives harder and harder.
Aftab Sherpao of Qaumi Watan Party (QWP) also taunted finance minister Ishaq Dar, who was present in the house along with the PM, saying, “Every time Mr Dar goes to meet the IMF, we get worried that he will come back with a new tax. This must end now.”
In the afternoon, during the second part of the session, PPP’s Naveed Qamar built the case for his party’s support to the bill. “Since we are the first ones who first introduced this tax, it will sound hypocritical if the PPP opposes it.”
He said the PPP’s concerns regarding the bill had been addressed by the government, which had accepted some amendments.
However, sources say that during the last meeting between PPP Co-Chairman Asif Zardari and the PM, the former had agreed to support the government over the bill.
When the speaker called for a vote, PTI and MQM raised slogans against the “unholy alliance of the PPP and PML-N”. Expressing his surprise over the PPP’s support to the bill, Dr Alvi tweeted, “All of them spoke vehemently against the bill and NA record would testify to it, then voted with PML-N. I was shocked.”
It may be recalled that this tax was initially announced by the PPP government in 2011, but was challenged in court. The Supreme Court had ruled that such a cess could not be collected through the finance bill, but the PML-N government imposed the tax through an ordinance in September last year.
On Jan 16, the National Assembly extended the validity of the ordinance for another 120 days until May 22. Later, the government laid the ordinance before the assembly in the form of a bill and the house committee on petroleum and natural resources passed it in February with a majority vote.
Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2015