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ISLAMABAD, April 19: Opposition lawmakers in the National Assembly on Wednesday questioned the recent privatisation of Pakistan Steel Mills but failed to push for a parliamentary probe into the issue before the National Assembly was prorogued amidst protests after a 13-day session.

The government defended the deal as prudent and transparent during an opposition-inspired debate on the March 31 sale of a 75 per cent stake in the country’s largest industrial unit to a Saudi-Russian-Pakistani consortium for $362 million.

Most opposition speakers said the Pakistan Steel Mills Corporation (PSMC) was sold too cheaply in what they saw as manipulated bidding for much costlier assets and even called into question the desirability of privatising such a vital unit built by the former Soviet Union.

Minister in charge for Privatisation Awais Ahmed Leghari rejected the opposition’s allegations as baseless and said there was no wrongdoing in the deal, insisting the government got a good price for it, one that was higher than the reserve price.

The opposition staged two protest walkouts after Speaker Chaudhry Amir Hussain rejected a demand to use his discretion to order a vote in the house for referring the PSMC sale to the National Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee for a scrutiny.

Besides the minister’s speech, only a low-level defence was put up by some back-benchers of the ruling coalition that was no match to the opposition onslaught led by former interior minister Aitzaz Ahsan and Chaudhry Manzoor Ahmed of the People’s Party Parliamentarians (PPP).

First the opposition members walked out after the speaker asked Mr Leghari to wind up the debate, in which 13 other members had spoken, and promised to consider the opposition demand for a vote afterwards.

They walked out in protest again after the speaker rejected PPP member Nayyar Hussain Bokhari’s motion for a vote, which the opposition would have won because of its majority in the house at the time, and started reading out the presidential order proroguing the session that had started on April 7.

Mr Leghari, whose speech was repeatedly disturbed by opposition protests, called the PSMC sale timely and in national interest and described most of opposition criticism as “aerial firing” designed to mislead the people.

He said an open and transparent bidding was held on March 31 between two consortiums of pre-qualified parties and it was “only after the bid crossed the (undisclosed) reserve price that we accepted it”.

The minister also clarified that Rs6.5 billion cash reserves of the PSMC would come to the government.

He disagreed with the opposition argument against sale of profitable enterprises and said a unit could bring a good price only after it was made profitable.

Manzoor Ahmed, who opened the debate, called the PSMC’s fast-track privatisation scandalous in which, he said, the bidding was deliberately restricted to two consortiums.

He even cast doubts about the bid-winning consortium’s Pakistani partners who, he said, might be there on behalf of some undisclosed party.

“Who is behind it? People should be told whose front-man Arif Habib is,” Mr Ahmed said while referring to Arif Habib Securities, whose other consortium partners are Tuwairqi Steel Mills of Saudi Arabia and M. Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works Open JSC of Russia.

The PPP member also found fault with the recent privatisation of the Pakistan Telecommunication Company Ltd, the Habib Bank Limited, the Karachi Electric Supply Corporation, and said the Steel Mills, which he called “mother of other industries” should have been kept out of the process as done in neighbouring India.

Mr Aitzaz Ahsan pointed to what he saw as a key position of the PSMC for exports and imports because of its proximity to the Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific and said it should have been spared the sale as one of “commanding heights of the state which can’t be given to others”.

In support of his argument, he cited the recent reversal of a Dubai firm’s deal for the management of some American ports on the insistence of the Congress and said Pakistan would now remain an attractive market for Arabs and should not compromise on national interest merely for Arab money.

He described the Steel Mills as a sacred trust and an “ornament of the mother (state)” and remarked: “The ornament is being sold during the mother’s lifetime.”

Muttahida Qaumi Movement member Haider Abbas Rizvi defended the deal and said that it would bring the latest technology and increase steel production. But he demanded that the price of land sold with the mill be given to Sindh provincial government which, he said, had given it for the mill at a nominal price.

He also demanded settlement of issues with employees such a golden handshakes, retirement and their rights to accommodation in a steel township before the unit is handed over to the new owners.