Mere hours following an increase in petrol and diesel prices, the government has, as expected, come under extreme pressure from political forces for the move.
Political parties have warned the government of ‘chaos on the streets’ if it does not immediately withdraw an over nine per cent increase in petroleum prices – a move that the government was forced to implement given increasing oil prices in the international market, and the increasing burden that subsiding the commodity was putting on the already beleaguered economy.
On Tuesday, the government had to deal with walkouts from the National Assembly by both the opposition – the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and PML-Q, – as well as its key ally – the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM).
The MQM, a party whose support is pivotal for the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)-led government to maintain a simple majority in the house, has already given the government a three-day ‘deadline’ to reverse the price increase, failing which it would take “appropriate action”.
However, none of these groups appeared to offer any concrete alternative to the government to balance economic compulsions and social considerations when adjusting petroleum prices according to skyrocketing international rates.
Political pressure had already forced the government to take back a fuel price hike once before at the start of the year – a move that delivered a big hit to the country’s economy.
With an overwhelming majority of Pakistanis not paying taxes, indirect taxation and revenues collected on petroleum products are the biggest earning avenues for the state.
The political parties opposing price increase have recently frustrated several government attempts to reform the country’s taxation system, which, among other things, has resulted in the suspension of a bailout package from the International Monetary Fund.
Before walking out of the National Assembly on Tuesday, political parties delivered dramatic speeches castigating the government for the price hike.
“It is tantamount to a suicide attack on the people of Pakistan…the government is following the dictates of the IMF instead of the parliament,” Khawaja Saad Rafiq of the PML-N said.
He termed the increase an unjust and unfair move, urging the government to immediately take it back.
MQM’s Haider Abbas Rizvi claimed that a parliamentary committee formed to guide the government on this matter was not consulted ahead of the decision on Sunday night.
Rizvi added, “We give three days to the government to withdraw the recent increase in petroleum prices.”
Sheikh Waqas Akram of the PML-Q also endorsed the views of his fellow legislators and advised the government to avoid taking such decisions.
The MQM and opposition parties on Tuesday also staged a token walkout from the Sindh Assembly in protest against hike in fuel prices.
As the session started, the members of opposition including Pakistan Muslim League-Functional (PML-F) and PML-Q stood up and said that recent price hike in petroleum products has created a law and order situation in the province. The members of MQM and PPP assured them that they would also table joint resolution on the issue and requested them to end the protest. But they continued their protest and staged walkout for a few minutes. Later Sindh Education Minister Pir Mazharul Haq brought them back to the session.
A similar situation was witnessed when MQM wanted to bring a resolution in the house on the issue. They were told by PPP members to wait until their parliamentary leader comes and the house should pass a resolution against attempts of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz of introducing horse-trading in the Punjab Assembly. “We are bringing a joint resolution…we will take it up later on,” they said.
But as the resolution against PML-N was passed the MQM members got permission from the chair and moved their resolution, which read: “The increase in the prices of petroleum products by 9.9% will raise the consumer’s prices including bus and train fares and have angered the common man. It is, therefore, proposed that government of Sindh recommend to the federal government to withdraw the increase in PoL prices.” But Pir Mazhar, Shazia Marri and Ayaz Soomro of PPP were of the view that the prime minister had already taken back the petrol price increase by giving subsidy of Rs15 billion after protest by different quarters. But since the prices of fuel have soared in international market, it would be difficult for the government to give further subsidy.
Pir Mazhar responding to MQM members said “We request you to give us time, so that we can also consult with our leadership on the issue. We assure you that your resolution will be passed tomorrow (Wednesday)” he said.
Sardar Ahmed of MQM and other members of the party agreed, but Dr Sagheer Ahmed, said that before the resolution gets passed they will stage a walkout in protest against it, which the party did.
The speaker adjourned the session till Friday.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 2nd, 2011.