ISLAMABAD: After a three-day mayhem, normalcy finally returned to the National Assembly on Thursday due to an out-of-parliament understanding between the treasury and the opposition parties providing an opportunity to Opposition Leader Shehbaz Sharif to complete his unfinished speech on the budget in which he lashed out at the performance of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government and challenged its claim of economic growth in the country.

In his more than two hours long speech, Mr Sharif not only criticised the economic policies of the government but also consumed considerable time in highlighting the “achievements” of his party’s previous government.

Mr Sharif, who is also the president of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), declared that the opposition would not let the budget be passed by the parliament.

“We will become an iron wall… we will not let this budget be passed,” he stated.

From the treasury side, federal Minister for Planning and Development Asad Umar opened up the budget debate. Responding to Mr Sharif’s speech, he said it was regrettable to see those people lecturing them on the economy who had actually ruined it during their rules.

As soon as Speaker Asad Qaiser asked Mr Sharif to complete his speech, Communications Minister Murad Saeed stood up and sought floor amid whistling by some treasury members sitting on the back benches. The speaker, however, directed the minister to take his seat.

Vows to block passage of budget in NA; Asad Umar rejects opposition leader’s figures

At this point, Mr Saeed was seen signalling the members sitting on the seats behind him and then he led them out of the assembly hall. However, a couple of ministers and few treasury members kept sitting in the house and silently listened to the opposition leader’s speech. Later, treasury MNA Aamir Liaquat Hussain said on Twitter that “41 PTI members have boycotted the speech of Shehbaz Sharif”.

Taxing measures slammed

The opposition leader said that in the last three years, the government had burdened the masses with heavy taxes, making the life of the poor miserable, adding that he had learnt that the government intended to impose new taxes worth Rs383 billion. Besides this, he said, there were reports that the government wanted to impose Rs120bn income tax. He criticised the government’s decision to impose tax on items used by the poor, like milk, yogurt, sugar and cooking oil.

“If the pockets of the people are empty, then this budget is fake,” declared Mr Sharif, adding that the previous three years proved to be “heavy” on millions of people of Pakistan. The PTI rule had brought “hunger, poverty and disappointment” and the present budget would bring more price hike in the country, he said.

The PML-N government had left the country with 5.8 per cent GDP which came down to 2.1pc in the first year of the PTI rule and then to negative 0.5pc the next year, even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country, Mr Sharif said. Had the PTI government continued with the PML-N’s policy, today the country’s growth rate would have been over seven per cent, he said.

Mr Shehbaz recalled that in his first speech in the house, he had talked about signing a “charter of economy”, but he was ridiculed.

“This is lowest (GDP) in Pakistan’s history since 1952,” the opposition leader claimed amid slogans of “shame, shame” by the opposition members. He said the government had promised creation of 10 million jobs but it had made five million people jobless. Besides, he said, some 20m people had been pushed below the poverty line.

“They say we will create Naya Pakistan. It is obvious that the old Pakistan was better when the country was at least making some progress,” he said amid desk-thumping by his colleagues on the opposition benches.

The PML-N leader said there was lack of trust among the provinces as well as between the provinces and the Centre, claiming that “such differences have never been seen before.”

The opposition leader claimed that the government had obtained 52 per cent of the loans the previous governments had obtained in 71 years. Despite this, he said, government functionaries were inaugurating projects that had been initiated by the PML-N government. He claimed that the PTI government would meet 40pc of the defence needs with loans over which “alarming bells should be rung.”

Mr Sharif said when the PML-N left the government, recovery rate of electricity bills was 93pc which had now come down to 89pc. He refuted the government’s allegations that the PML-N had installed expensive power projects. He challenged the PTI to prove the charge, announcing that he would quit politics, if the charge was proved.

Slamming the government’s agriculture policy, Mr Sharif said there had been 50 to 100pc increase in the prices of pesticides in the last three years. He said the price of DAP fertilizer was Rs2,450 in 2018 which had now reached Rs5,700 and similarly the price of Urea had increased to Rs1,800 from Rs1,200 in 2018. He claimed that the PML-N government through subsidy was charging Rs5.35 per unit for the electricity used in running tube-wells whereas the tariff had now been increased to Rs13 per unit.

Mr Shehbaz also criticised the PTI governments in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and said had the PML-N got an opportunity to rule KP for nine years, it would have brought it at par with Punjab.

The PML-N chief also criticised the PTI government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and said Rs1.2 trillion package to deal with coronavirus announced by the government also “fell victim to incompetence and negligence.” He regretted that the government started vaccination with the vaccines gifted by China and other countries.

Demands

Mr Sharif demanded withdrawal of taxes on prices of essentials items. He also called for a 20pc increase in salaries of government employees and fixing minimum wage for labourers at Rs25,000. He asked the government to bring down power tariff to the 2018 level.

Govt response

Taking part in the debate, Asad Umar defended the government’s economic policies and said they had curtailed the expenses of the PM House and the Secretariat by Rs1.1bn and the amount was being redirected to welfare schemes. He rejected the figures presented by Mr Sharif about the tenures of the PML-N and PTI governments and said someone had provided Mr Sharif wrong information.

Mr Umar said the government’s response in combating the Covid-19 pandemic had been hailed by international organisations, including the World Health Organisation. He said health was a devolved subject after the 18th Amendment and asked the PML-N and the PPP to tell how much amounts their governments had spent in Azad Kashmir and Sindh, respectively, for purchase of vaccines.

Mr Umar lamented that former prime minister Nawaz Sharif couldn’t even build a single hospital in the country where he could get himself treated.

Responding to Shehbaz Sharif’s objection of the premier’s “constant absence” from the assembly, Mr Umar said he should ask Nawaz Sharif to return to the country.

He also said the PTI was re-elected with a heavy majority in the 2018 general elections in KP due to its “great performance.”

He said they had observed that PTI workers in KP were unhappy, but the voters were happy, adding, “we respect them who voted us to power.”

Criticising the policies of the previous governments, Mr Umar, who had served as the first finance minister of the PTI government, said Pakistan’s foreign reserves stood at $10.2 billion and net reserves at $3.5bn while fiscal deficit was at $2bn average per month when the PTI government took charge. “We reduced the deficit by half in our first eight months,” he added.

Referring to Pakistan economy as the “sinking Titanic ship” in 2018, he said Prime Minister Imran Khan saved the sinking ship because “he is a leader, not a politician” and his decisions yielded results. He said this was the first year when a record-high Rs4,164 billion had been collected in taxes and the figure may reach Rs4,800bn by the end of the year.

Published in Dawn, June 18th, 2021

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