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ISLAMABAD: Shrugging off the $200 billion estimates about Pakistani wealth stashed in foreign banks, Finance Minister Asad Umar has said that the priority of the new government is to repatriate the ‘huge’ amount of funds transferred abroad through the illegal practice of money laundering.

Speaking to the media after he was given his first briefing as the minister for finance by the secretary, Mr Umar said that the government would soon decide whether to present a fresh federal budget or come up with some other way to lay out the actual economic situation in parliament.

Responding to a question, the minister said employees would not be laid off. Instead, he added, the current staff will be reoriented to work towards delivering public service — and not just continue to serve the few at the expense of the many. “We are not going to sack or send home any labour. We are not going to create unemployment,” he said.

Says decision soon whether to present fresh budget or come up with some other way to lay out economic situation before parliament

The finance minister said that it is a misnomer that thousands of laborers inducted into the public sector was the cause of the downfall of public sector entities like the Pakistan Steel Mill and Pakistan International Airlines.

He said that there might be people who were not utilised or those who should not have been inducted in the first place, but it was the ineffectual management and the incompetence of past governments that was the underlying cause of the unprofitability of the public sector.

Mr Umar added that nobody, including himself, knew exactly how much wealth Pakistanis had stashed abroad, except the $8bn invested in the Dubai real estate market, as stated by the Dubai Real Estate Authority. Clearly, he said, they were “huge amounts and since we have been talking about this, the first decision of the cabinet under Prime Minister Imran Khan was to constitute a task force, which has been given two weeks to formulate a strategy to repatriate the looted money that has been filtered out of Pakistan thanks to years of corruption”.

Mr Umar said that the former finance minister, Ishaq Dar, had stated on the floor of the National Assembly that $200bn had been stashed abroad. But, he added, the previous government had failed to take any concrete measures to repatriate the money.

The government, Mr Umar said, had not yet taken a final decision about issuing bonds to overseas Pakistanis, but decided, in principle, to offer bonds and sukuk to expatriates.

He said he had been given a broad review of the economic situation during his visit to the ministry, and that there were several daunting challenges, but there were also many opportunities.

Mr Umar said that the previous government had rolled out an unrealistic budget that had nothing to do with the realities on the ground. He said that the prime minister had decided to lay out the dire circumstances and actual realities before parliament. The finance minister said that the position of the fiscal deficit and the steps required to remedy the colossal problems would also be presented on the floor of the house.

“We will formulate a comprehensive and integrated economic strategy to address all the challenges we face today,” Mr Umar said, adding that the plan to save the economy would involve raising funds by reaching out to expatriates.

Earlier in the day, the minister chaired a meeting of senior officials in the finance ministry, where he was briefed on the overall working of the department, its different wings and sub-ordinate offices. The minister on the occasion reiterated the government’s resolve to take concrete steps to strengthen the economy. He called upon the officers to work as a team and contribute their best to that end, said an official statement.

Published in Dawn, August 21st, 2018