Oil prices add fuel to raging fire of discontent

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PM to ‘take nation into confidence’ on IMF-PTI deal soon • MNAs on both sides of the aisle call out govt over price hike • Ministers defend govt move, ask traders to adopt austerity measures • Imran calls for nationwide anti-inflation protests on Sunday

ISLAMABAD: Amid widespread criticism from friends and foes over the government’s decision to increase oil prices for the third time in as many weeks, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on Thursday defended the move, claiming he was “left with no choice”, and vowed to take the nation into confidence about the deal inked by the previous Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which, according to him, was the main cause for the country’s economic woes.

Rejecting the government’s stance, PTI chairman Imran Khan gave a call for nationwide protests against price hike and loadshedding on Sunday.

According to PTI information secretary Farrukh Habib, Mr Khan would also address the protesters through video link at specific places in various cities at 9pm on Sunday.

In the National Assembly also, a number of lawmakers from both the opposition and treasury benches asked the government to either immediately withdraw the price raise or announce a relief package for the masses.

PM’s acknowledgment

Prime Minister Sharif through a series of tweets acknowledged that the recent hike in oil prices would cause more inflation, but blamed the previous PTI government for the current economic situation of the country.

“I wonder whether those who struck the worst-ever deal with the IMF and took patently bad economic decisions have the conscience to face the truth. How can they pretend to be innocent when what the nation is going through is clearly their doing? Details soon,” Shehbaz tweeted.

“Acutely aware of the impact that a fuel price hike causes. (The) govt is left with no choice but to raise the prices due to (the) IMF deal that (the) PTI government signed,” he further said, adding: “Will take the nation into confidence on the specifics of the IMF-PTI deal soon. We will get out of these economic difficulties, IA.”

PTI reaction

Coming down hard on the government, PTI’s Farrukh Habib said dropping the “petroleum bomb” thrice on the masses in just 20 days was nothing but rubbing salt on their wounds.

“Just like robbers enter a house in the dark of the night, the imported government too plunders the pockets of the people via petrol and diesel prices in the dark of night,” tweeted PTI secretary general Asad Umar.

Similarly, former finance minister Shaukat Tarin tweeted that the increase in oil prices would push inflation over 30 per cent and “crush the middle to lower income groups”.

“They (the government) should get discounted Russian oil, provide subsidies to lower income groups and cut other costs to give relief (to the people),” he suggested.

National Assembly

In the lower house, Finance Minister Miftah Ismail remained the target of the lawmakers’ ire during the budget debate after Maulana Abdul Akbar Chitrali of the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) raised the issue of increase in oil prices. He called the finance minister an “IMF representative”, and asked the government to at least allocate funds for people to meet expenses for burials.

PTI dissident Mir Khan Muhammad Jamali regretted that all the past governments had appointed non-elected people as finance ministers, saying the incumbent was also one such person and not answerable to anyone.

PML-N’s Javed Hasnain also questioned if there was not a single member in the house who could have been given the responsibility of the finance minister. He regretted they had handed over everything, including the State Bank, to the IMF for the sake of $1 billion.

Independent MNA Mohsin Dawar criticised the government’s move of withdrawing subsidy on petroleum products, and quoted a two-year-old UNDP report that said the government was giving subsidies worth Rs2,660bn to the feudals, corporate sector and military-run businesses. He asked why these subsidies were not considered a burden on the national exchequer.

Ministers’ press conference

Speaking at a joint news conference, Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, State Minister for Petroleum Dr Musadik Malik, Adviser to the PM on Kashmir Affairs Qamar Zaman Kaira and Communications Minister Asad Mehmood defended the government’s move to increase oil prices and urged the nation, especially traders, to adopt austerity measures to reduce wastage of fuel and electricity.

According to the APP, Mr Asif said traders must accept the new business closure timings proposed by the federal cabinet to reduce electricity consumption and fuel usage.

“We can control the price hike through internal measures, such as austerity. However, at the national level neither the previous governments nor society adopted austerity to control unnecessary expenses,” he added. “Rest assured the government will take every possible step to ensure relief.”

Dr Malik said the previous government had laid landmines through subsidies on fuel and left the country in a depleting economic situation. “Imran Khan decided that there will be no increase in fuel prices, which had no ratification in any official document, and was only a political proclamation,” he said, adding had they delayed the price increase for a month, it would have cost the national exchequer Rs100 to Rs120bn a month.

Senate protest

Meanwhile, the opposition in the Senate staged a noisy protest against petroleum price hike, gathering close to the chairman’s dais and chanting slogans against the government.

The lawmakers ignored the chair’s requests to take their seats, and staged a token walkout from the house.

JI Senator Mushtaq Ahmad said the massive increase in oil price was a conspiracy against the people who were being economically strangulated. dawn