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According to sources, Prime Minister Ashraf was so excited to chair his first cabinet meeting that he came to the Prime Minister Secretariat well on time. - APP photo

ISLAMABAD: Raja Pervez Ashraf chaired the first cabinet meeting on Tuesday since taking over as prime minister, setting for himself and his team a difficult task of streamlining the power sector and to enforce at-source deduction of electricity dues from all those federal and provincial government departments which default on payments.

The energy crisis topped the agenda, with the new prime minister declaring he would not leave ‘any stone unturned’ to rectify the situation and assuring the cabinet of bringing loadshedding to a manageable level within three months.

However, learning from experience as power minister under former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, this time he didn’t announce any timeframe for ending loadshedding.

The prime minister directed the Ministry of Water and Power to recover outstanding dues of Wapda from all federal and provincial government departments and private sector entities without any discrimination, said a press release.

“If there is default by government departments, the Ministry of Finance should consider deducting the outstanding dues through federal adjuster,” the press release quoted the prime minister as saying.

The suggestion of at-source deduction had been made in the past too, but to no effect, said a Wapda official. He said the move had fallen victim to political expediency since major defaulters were the PPP-ruled Sindh government (Rs52 billion) and KESC (Rs42 billion). Therefore, the official said, only time would tell if the prime minister could really bring about some positive change in the power sector.

According to sources, Prime Minister Ashraf was so excited to chair his first cabinet meeting that he came to the Prime Minister Secretariat well on time.

“The meeting was scheduled to start at 11am, but the prime minister reached the meeting hall at 10.55am. After waiting for half an hour for ministers to turn up, he opened the session,” said an employee of the prime minister’s office.

He said the latecomers apologised and praised the prime minister for his punctuality.

Once again, according to a participant of the meeting, cabinet members across party lines were up in arms against the crippling shortage of electricity and told the new prime minister that it was the last chance for the ruling coalition to improve the power sector before the general election. Otherwise, they warned, “we will have to face serious repercussions”.

During the current month, residences of a number of PML-Q lawmakers, especially in Punjab, came under attack by people protesting against the prolonged loadshedding.

“If the situation persists, opposition parties will further exploit it and similar violent protests will spread to other parts of the country,” warned a minister.

According to the press release, the water and power secretary briefed the meeting on the energy situation, saying that at present 12,410MW of electricity was being produced while there was a shortage of 5,733MW. He said that 460MW had been added to the national grid over the past three days and another 300MW would be included by Tuesday evening.

The addition of 2,100MW by Thursday would reduce loadshedding across the country, the secretary said, adding that people would get ‘substantial relief’ next month because of an increase in power generation.

PAKISTAN-US TIES: Like his predecessor, Mr Ashraf got an opportunity to discuss the thorny issue of Pakistan-US relations, but repeated the same old line: “Pakistan-US relations are passing through a very delicate and critical phase and we will not take hasty and emotional decisions that do not augur well.”

He also reiterated the government’s stand on Nato supply routes: “Nato supply routes to Afghanistan were blocked because of an unprovoked attack on the Salalah checkpost. An unconditional apology from the US for this blatant attack is the demand of parliament and we shall proceed keeping our national interests in view.”

About extremism, he also didn’t utter anything different. “Let me categorically declare that we will not let our land to be used against any country for any terrorist activity. Simultaneously, we expect our neighbours and other powers to refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of Pakistan.”

BALOCHISTAN ISSUE: The issue of Balochistan also came under discussion. The prime minister said: “Balochistan is our priority. I invite all Baloch leaders, in and outside Pakistan, to come and sit across the table with us in finding an amicable solution to the Balochistan issue.”

The cabinet approved the Constitution (Twenty-first Amendment) Bill 2012 to further amend the Fifth Schedule to the Constitution to increase pension of widows of judges of the Supreme Court and high courts to 75 per cent from 50 per cent.

The cabinet gave its ex-post facto approval for negotiations and signing of MoU on railway link between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In order to expand bilateral, regional and transit trade cooperation and rail connectivity with Afghanistan, a joint declaration was signed during a visit by the Afghan president to Pakistan in March 2010 for the construction of Peshawar-Jalalabad rail link.