ISLAMABAD, April 27: Senators from both the opposition and treasury benches cried out against the prevailing price hike in Pakistan during an upper house debate on Wednesday, some warning of a volcano of people’s unrest that could explode at any time.
The opposition blamed government policies for the high costs of food and other goods and services while the ruling coalition members pointed to external factors and urged critics to help the government with suggestions to tackle the situation.
It was the first time in two years of the present Senate that the plight of people due to dearness was discussed in such detail with complaints ranging from high prices of flour, bread, lintels, vegetables, meat, energy and fertilizers to alleged government moves to provide luxuries to its functionaries.
Some opposition members complained about the absence of ministers with economic portfolios from the debate, but were assured by house chairman Mohammedmian Soomro that Parliamentary Affairs Minister Sher Afgan Niazi would convey their sentiments to quarters concerned.
Winding up the long debate, which was stretched to a second sitting in the evening, Mr Afgan defended the government which, he said, was doing everything possible to deal with the situation.
He said while the government awaited proposals from a committee headed by the prime minister’s adviser on finance and economic affairs, Dr Salman Shah, it would ensure implementation of existing laws meant to control prices.
“The people’s purchasing power has been totally eroded,” former finance minister and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) parliamentary leader Ishaq Dar said while initiating the debate on the third day of the session the opposition had requisitioned to discuss the political situation, foreign policy, dearness and law and order.
Quoting from the latest State Bank of Pakistan report, he said a “worrisome” 9.9 per cent increase in inflation rate was seven-year high compared to two to three per cent before President Pervez Musharraf took power five years ago.
He complained that no concrete step had been taken to remedy the situation as he cited increases in the prices of essential food and other commodities during this period such as flour at Rs16 from Rs8 per kilo, roti (loaf) at Rs3 from Rs1.50, cooking oil at Rs80 from Rs54 per kilo, mutton at Rs220 from 110 per kilo, beef at Rs120 from Rs60 per kilo, and milk at Rs24-33 from Rs18 per litre.
Ms Razina Alam of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML) said dearness had severely hit 70 to 80 per cent of the country’s population and creating a situation where the poor who could previously afford vegetables now had to make do with “just salt and water” in place of a curry.
She called for an institutionalized resistance against price hike and artificial shortages and proposed formation of price control committee from the province down to the town mohalla level and a drive to promote austerity.
Mohammad Enver Baig of the People’s Party Parliamentarians (PPP) said while dearness and unemployment had forced poor people to extreme actions like suicide and killing their children, the government was buying luxury and bullet-proof cars and aircraft for its functionaries like the president, prime minister, National Assembly speaker and ministers.
“We are sitting on a volcano which can explode at any time,” he said as he accused the government’s economic managers of making budget plans in the background of Islamabad’s Margalla hills while being “far from reality”.
Prof Khurshid Ahmed of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) estimated an average 80 per cent price increase in five years, blaming it on economic policies prescribed by western institutions for developing countries and a “defective” preference for macro-economic goals to a “criminal neglect” of micro-economic situation.
He disputed the government’s claims about “breaking the begging bowl” and poverty reduction and said while the country’s domestic debts had increased to $39.4 billion from $29.2 billion and foreign debts to $34.8 billion from $33.3 billion, poverty rate had risen to 40 per cent from 20 per cent.
“I fear the lava is building up within,” he said about the popular feelings and asked the government to bring about a basic change in its development strategy keeping all indicators in view and not to abdicate its responsibility towards public welfare while pursuing the goals of a market economy.
Dr Nighat Agha, another PML Senator from Punjab, acknowledged it had become difficult for the poor to have two square meals a day, and said the situation was not due to any government failure “but because we are living in a global village” and amenable to external factors.
She urged opposition senators to make suggestions to the government and said she had made some which had been accepted for inclusion in the next budget — one of them about income tax rationalization and another to facilitate bank loans against pledged government securities.
MMA’s Azam Khan Swati from the NWFP urged the government to allow former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to return from exile and called for steps to rid the common man of what he called “the millstone of dearness”.
Azizullah Satakzai, an MMA Senator from Balochistan, said while “you eat prathas (oiled loaves), poor people do not get even dry roti” and told the house that a roti cost Rs7 in some remote areas of his home province.
PML’s Senator Agha Pari Gul, also from Balochistan, agreed with him and said she was told during a recent visit to Quetta that the roti price had gone up to Rs8 apiece.
PPP Senator Sajjad Hussain Bokhari from Punjab said the government should devote all its resources and powers to control prices with the zeal it showed to block a welcome for Asif Ali Zardari on the ex-senator’s return from Dubai on April 16.