ISLAMABAD: Only days after Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif announced a national austerity plan amid a severe financial crisis, the National Assembly was informed on Monday about the exorbitant expenditure on foreign junkets of cabinet members and the purchase of protocol vehicles, during the government’s first nine months in power.
The ‘partial’ and ‘incomplete’ information was provided by the government through written replies in response to various questions posed by members on a day that Deputy Speaker Zahid Akram Durrani deferred pretty much the day’s entire agenda owing to the absence of ministers, their deputies, and other cabinet members from the house after expressing his displeasure over the situation.
In response to a question asked by Ghous Bux Mahar of the Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA), the lower house was informed that Rs63.71 million was spent on the foreign visits of 23 members of the federal cabinet during the first nine months of the coalition government.
However, according to the reply submitted by the minister in charge of the Cabinet Division, the list contains only the visits which were routed through the Cabinet Division.
Coalition govt spent nearly Rs64m on tours abroad, purchased eight vehicles for over Rs57m
The minister suggested the questioner could approach the relevant divisions for “complete information”.
Since the GDA member had sought the details of the foreign visits of federal cabinet members during 2022, the reply also contained details of the visits of the former ministers of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI).
The data shows that the foreign visits of the seven members of the previous cabinet under Mr Khan had cost the national exchequer Rs6.26 million.
Interestingly, the information is incomplete as the reply shows the name of Federal Minister for Planning and Development Ahsan Iqbal to have undertaken a visit to Switzerland from Dec 12 to 14, but his name is missing from the list where expenditures have been mentioned.
Similarly, the answer has no mention of the visits undertaken by Foreign Minister and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari as the party claims that he has been paying for his visits from his own pocket.
According to the list, the ministers and the ministers of state who undertook foreign visits during the first nine months in power are Sherry Rehman, Ishaq Dar, Ahsan Iqbal, Azam Nazeer Tarar, Shazia Marri, Marriyum Aurangzeb, Asad Mehmood, Syed Naveed Qamar, Israr Tareen, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, Khurram Dastagir Khan, Dr Musaddik Malik, Rana Tanveer Hussain, Aisha Ghaus Pasha, Chaudhry Salik Hussain, Ehsanur Rehman Mazari, Abdul Qadir Patel, Sajid Hussain Turi, Mufti Abdul Shakoor, Aminul Haq, Faisal Sabzwari, former finance minister Miftah Ismail and Special Assistant to the PM Faisal Karim Kundi.
Mr Mahar protested the incomplete reply, stating that he had also asked the minister concerned to state what was the purpose of these visits and “what benefits have been achieved by Pakistan from these foreign visits”. He also questioned the logic behind these visits at a time when the country was facing a serious economic crisis.
“We have no money. We are begging for money; just see how much money has been spent on these visits. What is this nonsense,” asked the GDA member, while waving the copy of the written reply. Mr Mahar also objected to the reply which stated that the details of only those visits had been provided which were routed through the Cabinet Division.
“The Cabinet Division has not been assigned any role in processing the summaries of the visits of the federal ministers/ministers of state/ SAPM in the Instructions on Visits Abroad dated 26-10-2018.
“The summaries for such visits are normally sent to the Prime Minister’s Office through the finance and foreign affairs divisions. However, a few cases of such visits have been routed through the Cabinet Division to the PM Office, too.
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Murtaza Javed Abbasi termed Mr Mahar’s objection valid and asked the deputy speaker to seek a response from relevant divisions for complete information. He said it was true that there had been no mention of the “purposes” of the visits as asked by the GDA member. The deputy speaker then referred the issue to the committee concerned, directing the minister to provide the complete details there.
Purchase of vehicles
In response to another question asked by PPP’s Sikandar Ali Rahoupoto, the National Assembly was informed that the present government had purchased a total of eight vehicles at a cost of over Rs57.3 million.
It said that the Cabinet Division secretary approved the purchase of the vehicles after the approval of the Finance Division. These eight vehicles were purchased for use of “protocol duties”. These vehicles include a 29-seater Toyota VIP Coaster, a 14-seater Toyota High-Roof van and six 1800cc Toyota Corolla cars.
The issue of lack of interest and absence of the ministers once again came to the surface during the sitting. “What are the ministers doing? The house cannot be run in this way. This is the attitude of the ministers,” said Mr Durrani before reading out the president’s prorogation order to adjourn the sitting sine die.
The deputy speaker was fuming when he found out that Minister for Power Khurram Dastagir Khan who was supposed to move a bill was absent from the house. He had already deferred a calling attention notice regarding the rising crime against women in Islamabad due to the absence of Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah from the session.
Published in Dawn, February 28th, 2023
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