LAHORE, May 17: A day after denouncing foreign aid and vowing to break the begging bowl, Punjab on Tuesday took a step backwards and announced it will not accept aid from the United States because it “undermined sovereignty” of the country.
This will mean that the government of Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif will continue to receive loans from non-US sources such as the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank as well as grants and aid from friendly countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, China, etc. “who don’t attach any strings with financial assistance”.
“We will not take aid from aghyaar (variously translated as strangers, rivals and enemies in English) because their conditions are compromising our sovereignty and independence. We have been reduced to the level of a client state and insulted and humiliated in the name of strategic partnership,” Mr Sharif told senior journalists during a briefing on his decision to reject the US financial assistance for the province.
He refused to name aghyaar in spite of insistence from some journalists, saying he wouldn’t name them. “Aghyaar are those (countries) who attach conditions with their aid and compromise our sovereignty,” he defined the term for the questioners.
He explained that the continuing drone attacks, which were breeding terrorism in the country and resulting in the loss of innocent lives, and the Osama bin Laden operation, which violated Pakistans sovereignty, led his government to take this drastic decision. “They (Americans) are not ready to trust Pakistan in spite of 35,000 deaths of its civilians in terrorist attacks and loss of 5,000 lives of its army men in the war on terror. They did not inform any one here about the Osama operation,” he said.
The press corps had expected some fireworks at the meeting given the message the chief minister had delivered on Monday -- which had then found resonance in the dismissal of foreign grants at a media briefing held by PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif in Karachi the same day.
Together, the statements by the Sharif brothers have been described by some as the first installment in a series of changes aimed at reconciling the PML-N with the popular thinking. These changes were considered necessary at a time when Pakistani sentiments against foreign influence had reached new levels in the wake of the Bin Laden operation on May 2 and the continuing drone attacks by the American forces based in Afghanistan.
More specifically, the sentiment is anti-American. Shahbaz Sharif could still achieve the desired objective behind ‘shun the foreigners’ philosophy by declaring American aid as non-kosher even when he was willing to accept other foreign grants. But as some government officials present at the press conference whispered that the aid-rejection refrain was a ploy to neutralise an emerging rightwing alliance under the leadership of Imran Khan, journalists saw in the chief minister’s refined statement a departure from what he said a day earlier.
“If we respect our independence and our sovereignty we will have to give up the begging bowl,” he said categorically after a cabinet meeting on Monday as he determinedly dispatched his new plan to Nawaz Sharif, the head of his political party, for his endorsement.
In answer to a question, Mr Sharif said Punjabs rejection of conditional American aid would build pressure on the federal government to follow the suit. “I don’t say that our action will lead to the stoppage of drone attacks. We are doing what suits us. The questions concerning the federal government’s position (on violation of the country’s sovereignty) should be addressed to the president, prime minister and chief of the army staff,” he told the questioner who wanted to know as to how Punjabs decision would help end drone attacks.
He underlined that the rejection of American aid should not be construed as an “anti-American action”. “It is a pro-Pakistan decision. We want to protect the interests of Pakistan,” he insisted. He cautioned against going into a “reactive mode” (against the US), saying: “We do not want to fight with any one, but we should not compromise on our interests.”
Punjab stood to receive $200 million from the USAID for solid waste management in its cities and education in three equal installments in as many years, according to the MoUs signed between his government and the US agency.
Mr Sharif said the decision to reject American aid was not an easy one. “It was a tough call. But the resource gap resulting from the rejection of American assistance will be filled by effectively taxing property on big houses in posh localities in cities and cutting non-development expenditure through austerity measures. Common people will not have to suffer because of it. It is time for the province’s elite to give some sacrifices for the common people,” he said. He, however, was non-committal on the implementation of tax on income from agriculture – a provincial subject under the constitution -- saying a committee was looking into it and its findings would made public as soon as these were finalised.
The chief minister complained that Punjab had so far received not a single paisa out of $179 million disbursed by the Americans from $1.5 billion under the Kerry-Lugar bill. “I don’t know where the money has gone,” he said.