Opposition join hands to take on Govt over budget

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-Bilawal says govt failed miserably to provide relief to masses when they need it most

By Shakeel Ahmed

ISLAMABAD: The opposition parties have said that the Federal Budget 2020-21 [hereafter “the Budget”] has failed on every account to address adequately the challenges to Pakistan posed by a global pandemic, rampant inflation, endemic unemployment, collapsing industry, shrinking agriculture, a deadly locust invasion, and ongoing global economic shocks.
In a joint statement issued from Sindh House Islamabad on Sunday by Leader of the Opposition President Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) Mian Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif, Chairman Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, leaders of Jammat-e-Islami (JI), Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), Awami National Party (ANP), Balochistan National Party (BNP), National Party and Qaumi Watan Party (QWP), they said Imran Khan’s government has failed miserably in providing relief to Pakistanis when they need it most. The Budget fails to provide for protecting the lives, economic future, and livelihoods of the Pakistani people.
They said, unprecedented challenges merit an unprecedented response. This Budget is nowhere close to that. We, the members of the Joint Opposition in Pakistan, have deliberated over the Budget at length and hereby reject the Budget unanimously and unequivocally on the following grounds:
1. The Imran Khan Government [hereafter “IK Government”] has presented a budget that is devoid of any good news for the people of Pakistan. As was the case last year, the fiscal numbers presented are not in the least credible. The obvious deception in the budget has started unraveling very quickly under the scrutiny of the opposition. The fears of the people have been proven correct even before the “no new tax” budget has been voted on. The massive and oppressive increase in petrol prices has laid bare the fact that a series of real mini-budgets will start appearing almost every month. How many more tax bombs is the PTÎ Government going to kill us with?
2. Pakistan is going through a grave fiscal crisis. The debt increased in the short period of two years by this incompetent Government is more than the debt increased by either PPP or PMLN in their 5 year tenure. The record high deficits incurred by IK Government in both its years are more than any deficit ever incurred by PPP or PMLN. These unprecedented deficits and debt, combined with a shrinking GDP, both in rupee and dollars, paint a very grave picture and put the future of our children in jeopardy. The economic damage inflicted by this direction-less Government, its incompetent leadership and their rented experts has mortgaged our future for generations.
3. In the last two years, IK Government has decreased our GDP growth from 5.8% to negative 0.4%. For the first time in history it has collected less tax revenues than the previous year. This feat IK Government has managed to do twice in two years. It has devalued the currency by 40% and yet managed to shrink exports in both years. It has doubled unemployment and increased poverty. It also increased interest rates and inflation to extortionate levels. The high interest rates benefitted anonymous overseas investors who were able to make billions at the expense of Pakistan. We shall remember all of this.4. Last year IK Government lied to the nation during the budget by claiming a deficit of only 7.1% which was revised eventually to 9.1%. This year it is claiming a deficit of 9.1% but we know it will be much more. IK Government also expects to raise 27% more taxes or an additional trillion rupees. This can only happen with IK Government presenting mini-budgets. We know already that this is what it intends to do. The current budget therefore is a ruse.5. Pakistan is going through a grave economic and social crisis because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead of addressing its dangers, providing for the vulnerable and the poor, looking to save the lives of so many exposed to disease and hunger, the IK Government has played the dance of its deadly and divisive politics on this budget too. The IK Government budget shockingly ignores that the world is going through such an unprecedented emergency of epic proportions. IK Government has completely ignored the Covid-19 pandemic in this budget.Instead of a crisis budget we have a flagrantly dishonest exercise that completely ignores the heartbreaking life-and-death realities on the ground. Instead of increasing development spending that provides jobs to our people, it has cut it. As per its agenda, it is slowly killing off CPEC by leaving little or no money in the budget for its programme. This budget, it seems, has been made with very different priorities in mind.6. This budget provides no extra protection neither for doctors on the front lines nor incentives for health workers putting themselves in danger, so that we may live with our families in peace. The Budget has not catered for extra hospitals, ventilators or oxygen-fortified. On the contrary, like all commodities under this regime, even oxygen has become scarce and IK Government has left the people at the mercy of oxygen “mafias” with no one to protect them. IK Government lacks any roadmap for health or economic recovery. Other than paper-statements, both the opportunity and the challenge presented by Covid-19 has not been seen in the “budget.” By the Government’s own data, until last year there were 1,279 hospitals in the country. No new hospitals were added in the years 2018-2019. There is no special package for Balochistan for the setting up of isolation and quarantine centres and for the electrification of its villages. 7. It is shocking how—despite the Eighteenth Amendment and consequent devolution— IK Government failed to consult provinces in designated constitutional forums such as the CCI, NEC and NFC. The National Finance Commission is completely illegal in its notification. The Budget also ignored WHO entreaties to the Government of Pakistan to add crucial health infrastructure. Instead of enhancing the percentage of GDP spent on health, for instance, which is in need of critical infrastructure and human resource support, IK Government has illegally and callously slashed federal support to the provinces. The money allocated to the provinces this year is 20% or Rs 500 billion less than what was stipulated last year. The budget should have had a health package for all the provinces.8. Despite the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization repeatedly supporting opposition warnings, that Pakistan’s GDP can be adversely affected by the locust attack to the tune of Rs 600 billion, the federal Government has not just ignored attempts to fight it, but has ONLY allocated Rs 10 billion for it. With 140,000 acres of crops already damaged by this locust tsunami, now hitting other parts of Asia and Africa as well, the Budget has criminally neglected calls for pesticide spray planes and other equipment. As it stands 3 million square kilometres of farmland is already affected badly in Pakistan, and further agricultural damage is expected with such inaction.
With 60 % of Pakistan hovering the edge of hunger and food insecurity, such federal indifference and inattention to one of the world’s greatest plagues will cost countless lives, not to mention livelihoods and exports from Pakistan. If at least a minimum of 20 aircraft and matching budget, five times the budgeted allocation, is not immediately provided, the FAO’s estimate of damage to Pakistan’s economy will shoot up to Rs 2000 billion. The world is warning that this is the worst Locust attack in 25 years. The IK Government is ignoring the world, ignoring the opposition, and not even implementing its own Locust National Action Plan.9. The alarming national water deficit is an existential crisis for Pakistan now, with drying up aquifers and sea water intrusion, along with climate change shocks. Despite the fact that the UN has warned that Pakistan will be water-scarce by 2025, allocations for water resources and conservation have been cut. Provision of building dames and conservation of water in Balochistan has not been prioritized.
10. The IK Government is hiding the just announced petrol bomb under the head of “petroleum levy”, so as to avoid sharing this revenue with the provinces as required by the constitution. This will not only place an unfair burden on the people and the provinces but is also illegal.11. The IK Government has protected crony capitalism by allowing money laundering through the construction sector, which had already made windfall profits through amnesty schemes and other tax breaks. In open contradiction to the famous IK Government’s promise to provide 50 lakh houses for the poor, no such shelter for the poor was provided.12. Instead of enhancing the BISP grant three-fold to help the population exposed to immediate financial trauma by the recessionary economy, the IK Government slashed social protection by Rs. 34 billion. The ONLY relief given to the poorest of the poor was in the shape of a one-off BISP grant, which was nothing more than the ordinary allocation expensed for the year.
People of tribal areas have been totally ignored , the internally displaced persons continue to languish in camps, the development budget allocations transferred to non-development sectors and the area remains a black hole as people denied internet.13. IK government did not increase salaries and pensions, despite double digit inflation and historically highest food inflation for the first time in many decades.
All previous Governments have to one extent or another provided relief on this count. At a time when the population is vulnerable to an enhanced and dangerous level of health and economic risk, this is a crucial need to support senior citizens in a pandemic, and has been ruthlessly overlooked.
14. For the first time in Pakistan’s history, the minimum wage was not adjusted for inflation thus putting additional burden on the lowest paid workers.
15. The IK Government has been at pains to portray its “stellar” performance prior to the corona pandemic, whereas its own numbers paint a different picture. The policy of very high interest rates, sudden massive devaluation of rupee, and witch-hunt of investors through NAB resulted in stagflation and has been responsible for ruining the country. Food inflation went from 1% to 25% in just one and a half years. IK Government policies have rendered over a million people rendered unemployed and forced millions more below the poverty line. And all this before anyone here had even been tested for COVID19 in the country.
16. IK Government ignored all parliamentary procedures during Budget consultations. At the same time, money collected internationally to aid Pakistan’s Covid-19 response is still in no way accounted for. Despite calls to have all spending approved through parliament, there has been no transparency or scrutiny on foreign aid. The last parliamentary committee on the Covid-19 emergency meeting took place on 27 April, 2020 – almost two months ago. In this moment of crisis, the role of parliamentary committees has been pushed aside, especially when there was and still remains a dire need of forging unity and ensuring transparency.
17. The state of the 4th pillar of democracy, the media, continues to worsen under the PTI government. Despite repeated reminders, the PTI government has not provided any relief to the journalist community which is among the hardest-hit by the Corona pandemic. The sector was already reeling from an economic crisis with mass lay-offs and salary cuts after the PTI government weaponized government ads to push its propaganda and lies. PTI uses NAB and other threats to gag the news media in Pakistan while its lynch-mob continues to demonize the 4th pillar of the state through its social media trolls, at times inciting violence.