ISLAMABAD: The government’s economic team headed by Finance Minister Dr Hafeez Shaikh came under severe criticism from senior party colleagues during a meeting of the federal cabinet on Wednesday over its alleged ‘non-serious’ handling of the power crisis.
A reliable source said it was an expression of a growing crevice between Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani who was presiding over the cabinet meeting and his finance minister on certain policy issues over the past few months. In one such incident, Mr Gilani overturned a decision of the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) of the cabinet led by Dr Shaikh and in another the finance minister declined to oblige his team leader.
A cabinet member told Dawn after the meeting that the prime minister “became furious” after learning that the Cabinet Committee on Energy (CCOE) he had constituted under the finance minister to resolve energy crisis and circular debt had not met even once over the past one month while the government faced growing public criticism.
“It is really unbelievable that these people are taking such a serious issue in such a non-serious manner,” he quoted Mr Gilani as saying.
While approving an energy conservation plan, the prime minister had directed the CCOE at the last meeting of the cabinet on Oct 12 to submit within 15 days a workable plan for resolving the issue of circular debt and the overall energy crisis. The meeting was informed that the energy committee had not met since then.
Taking cue from the leader, Minister for Kashmir Affairs Manzoor Ahmad Wattoo, who is considered to be a close confidant of the prime minister, said he was surprised how a clear-cut instruction of the cabinet had not been acted upon, adding that it reflected very poorly on the entire cabinet, sources said.
Petroleum Minister Dr Asim Hussain, who is a member of the CCOE, also joined the chorus and confirmed that the committee had not met for quite some time. He was quoted as saying that certain people simply did not perform and the entire government had to face embarrassment as people expressed their anger.
Minister for Overseas Pakistanis Dr Farooq Sattar of the MQM also chipped in by saying that his party would also contribute if it was involved in productive consultation for preparation of recommendations to overcome the energy shortage.
As cabinet members continued to criticise the economic team one after the other, the prime minister tasked Minister for Religious Affairs Syed Khurshid Shah to look into the matter and push the members of the committee to take up the issue as a top priority.
A finance ministry official said the prime minister had been given a couple of briefings on power sector issues with specific proposals, including power tariff increases, but these recommendations have not been adopted so far.
In a related development, the petroleum ministry had to almost double the gas supply to the fertiliser industry on the directive of the prime minister. The ECC had allocated 90 million cubic feet of gas to the fertiliser industry against its requirement of about 240 MMCFD, but once the decision was announced the supply to the fertiliser sector was increased to 150 MMCFD on the instructions of the prime minister’s secretariat. A petroleum ministry official said the ministry was under pressure even before the gas management plan was approved not to disconnect gas supply to Fatima Fertiliser.
Earlier, the finance minister had declined to oblige a desire of the prime minister to extend lease of the Saindak Copper Gold Project to a Chinese firm till complete exhaustion of the metal reserves. The Chinese lease is to expire next year, a senior government official said.
Likewise, the prime minister’s secretariat issued a specific directive to the ministry of finance to convene an emergency meeting of the ECC on Nov 11 to approve a gas sales and purchase agreement with Turkmenistan so that an agreement could be signed during the visit of the Turkmen president to Islamabad.
The ECC that met on Nov 11, however, did not clear the agreement and desired a complete picture of the transit fee for the Afghan part of the pipeline. Instead the ECC constituted a committee led by minister for petroleum and comprising senior officials of the economic ministries concerned to look into financial issues. Eventually, the two sides only ‘initialled’ the gas pricing agreement, instead of formal signing.
In the same directive, the prime minister’s secretariat also desired that the finance minister or the finance secretary should brief the media on decisions of the ECC and then ensure daily briefings to newsmen by the finance secretary or a designated spokesman about the circular debt and other economic issues on a daily basis. The directive, however, remains unimplemented.
The sources said the cabinet secretariat had again been asked to convene another meeting of the ECC on Nov 18 to clear issues relating to economic cooperation with Turkmenistan.