Centre, Sindh trade barbs over Covid-19

Updated Apr 14 2020

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LAHORE: Women stand in a queue for collecting cash through a mobile wallet under the Ehsaas programme for families in need during the lockdown.—AFP
LAHORE: Women stand in a queue for collecting cash through a mobile wallet under the Ehsaas programme for families in need during the lockdown.—AFP

ISLAMABAD: In the backdrop of an escalating war of words between the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and the Pakistan Peoples Party, the National Coordination Committee on Monday deferred a decision on lockdown for a day.

The difference of opinion between Prime Minister Imran Khan and the Sindh government on the issue of lockdown had been simmering for weeks but it flared up on Sunday when PTI ministers openly criticised the Sindh government and in particular Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah for his policies in combating Covid-19.

This prompted Mr Shah to hold a press conference on Monday in which he reiterated his position that a strict lockdown was the only viable option at this stage to slow the spread of coronavirus. “I am surprised that some people, who had been perhaps in hibernation, came up suddenly and started criticising me for imposing lockdown,” the CM said, adding that he had no objection to their criticism in foul language but then they should also criticise the leadership of other provinces who also imposed lockdown following the Sindh government’s decision.

The Sindh chief minister said at his press conference that Pakistan needed the national leadership to set a direction for the provinces instead of saying that provinces could choose their own paths. He had also complained that the federal government had not facilitated the efforts of his government and not released crucial data that Sindh had requested.

NCC defers decision on lockdown till today

Later in the day Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan in response to CM Shah’s presser said he should not have held the press conference to criticise the federal government. She said he should have discussed his issues with the prime minister.

She said during the NCC meeting chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan the decisions of the committee had been deferred for a day on the request of Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah, who had sought some time before making any decision regarding opening of essential industries.

Meanwhile, federal Minister for Planning and Development Asad Umar, who is also head of National Command [NCOC] and Operation Centre in NDMA in a post-NCC meeting press conference on Monday said: “The meetings of the federal cabinet and NCC will also be held on Tuesday afternoon in which a final decision regarding lockdown, relaxation in lockdown and opening of industries, transportation, health services and economy will be made.”

He said all decisions would be made “in consultation with the provincial governments”.

Some of the industrialists have sought permission for opening of their workplaces and the government was asking them to first meet all requirements and health safety measures for their workers otherwise these industries would become another epicentre of deadly Covid-19. “Heavy responsibility lies on owners of industries and businesses as to how they ensure protective measures by following the guidelines of the government. If necessary, the government will also go for legislation to ensure safety of employees,” the minister added.

Mr Umar reiterated: “The Center and all provinces, Azad Jammu & Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan government will decide tomorrow [Tuesday] in National Coordination Committee meeting that which industries will be opened.

“Tomorrow morning, the meeting of NCOC will take place in which all chief ministers and AJK prime minister will participate and will make decisions on the Centre’s proposals and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to be adopted by industries and businesses, which will be opened with some ease in lockdown situation.”

He said in the NCC meeting, the provinces expressing gratitude for the assistance provided by the NDMA reiterated “the whole nation has to fight together to defeat deadly virus”.

Meanwhile, some top builders and contractors of the country told Dawn that the government had to give some incentives to the contractors enabling them to open the construction industry and bear additional cost of preventive measures they had to adopt for the safety of their labourers and other employees at workplaces and sites.

The prime minister on April 3 announced a significant relief package for the construction sector and vowed to open its allied industries. However, the contractors said it was only for the builders and contractors in housing sector but not for those contractors who were executing mega development and infrastructure projects. “Prime Minister Imran Khan’s decision to open construction and allied industries will not work unless and until necessary steps are not taken to facilitate builders and contractors,” said a contractor who is constructing a highway under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project.

It has also been demanded that the government, first of all open passenger transport so that labourers and skilled labourers, who had returned home due to lockdown, could come back to work.

According to an SOP issued by the Punjab government, all contractors have to make arrangements to protect workers from coronavirus by establishing a quarantine facility to keep their incoming labourers and staff for some time before allowing them to work, by ensuring their employees observe social distancing that may slow down the pace of work, to engage the services of a professional doctor for them, and make separate sleeping arrangements.

“All this put additional financial burden on the contractors, therefore, it is suggested that 7.5 to 8 per cent withholding tax on them should be exempted,” said another big contractor, who did not want to be named.

The government monetary support to the construction firms is also required as they are paying salaries to their employees for over two months despite the fact that all their works have stalled.

Some of the proposals being considered by the government are that in the first phase the government should resume all stalled government projects being executed under federal and provincial Public Sector Development Programme [PSDP] through government funds or grants from World Bank, Asian Development Bank and other donor agencies including those related to CPEC-related projects.

If the government restarts public sector projects it will help avoid paying idle charges to the construction firms. Presently, the construction firms have sent their employees back to their homes due to lockdown situation but their construction sites were still open and under the PPRA rules they could claim idle charges.

Centre, Sindh lock horns

Ms Awan said the prime minister had advised the provincial governments to follow SOPs regarding the return of Pakistanis abroad and give their viewpoint in Tuesday’s meeting so that the relevant departments could form a roadmap for their return.

She said the PM had asked the Sindh chief minister to explain what impact the extension of lockdown in Sindh would have over the labour class.

Commenting on the press conference of the CM, she said instead of issuing media statements, it was time to serve the masses. “If Sindh province was facing some problems, the federal government should be informed about them,” she added.

She said mere allegations make the matters worse instead of their resolution. “It is not the time for political point-scoring, rather everyone should work in tandem to synergise the efforts against the killer disease,” she added.

She said it was responsibility of the Sindh government to make counters safe as the federal government was providing emergency cash relief to the poor people.

The PM’s aide urged the provinces to open those industries, which did not pose any risk of coronavirus spread.

Passenger trains

Meanwhile, the operation of passengers trains will remain suspended till April 25 [1st of Ramazan], Railway Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed announced. “The trains which were to be operational by April 15, will remain non-functional till April 25,” he said, adding that all freight trains will continue to run in the country.

Published in Dawn, April 14th, 2020