ISLAMABAD: The government decision of withdrawing Hajj subsidy came under sharp criticism in the Senate on Friday with some lawmakers calling it a ‘drone attack’ on the pilgrims and an attempt by the rulers to prevent people from undertaking the sacred journey.
The session began with Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani in the chair. During the debate, the chairman asked the finance minister to restore the government subsidy for Hajj pilgrimage. And the government assured the upper house to review its decision.
The issue was raised by Senator Mushtaq Ahmed through a call-attention notice. He said that the first Hajj policy of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government was disappointing because it increased the expenditures.
The cabinet has declined to approve a proposal from the religious affairs ministry for Rs45,000 subsidy for Hajj pilgrims, consequently, the expenditures for the holy pilgrimage increased by Rs176,000 for the current year.
Senator Mushtaq Ahmed said that Hajj expenditures during the tenure of the former government was Rs280,000. He added that a 60% increase in the expenditures tantamount to stopping the citizens from the sacred journey. He demanded restoration of the subsidy.
Responding, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Ali Muhammad Khan explained that 70% of the Hajj expenditures was paid to the Saudi Arabia, over which the government had no control. “Saudi Arabia has increased the expenditures for travel, accommodation and food,” he said.
The minister adding that the previous Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) had maintained Hajj expenditures in 2017 because of the election year. “Now a building in Saudi Arabia costs Rs94,185 instead of the previous Rs60,900 while food charges have increased from Rs23,606 to Rs38,000.”
In addition, the minister continued, accommodation charges have gone up from Rs23,000 to Rs40,000 and train charges from Rs7,000 to Rs20,000. Similarly prices of sacrificial animals have increased to Rs19,000 from the previous Rs13,050.
“Should the government pass this pressure somewhere else?” he asked. “The notion that the increase in Hajj expenditures is like prohibiting the pilgrims is totally unjustified. The government is trying to provide relief to the pilgrims before Hajj.”
During the session, the house approved recommendations of its standing committee on finance pertaining to supplementary finance bill. Proposals for 10% ad hoc relief to government employees, relief to tobacco farmers, and giving chance to non-filers to become filers were also approved.
Senator Farooq H Naik, chairman of the standing committee on finance, presented recommendations. He said that all government employees should be given 10% ad hoc relief, while non-filers should be restricted to buy cars up to 800cc capacity.
He requested the government to take measures to convert non-filers into filers. “The country needs to expand its tax base and bring as many people under it as possible. It is hoped that the government will seriously act on Senate’s recommendations and make them part of the bill.”
Finance minister Asad Umar told the house that the stock exchange had shown improvement during January. “The loss that the stock market suffered during 2018 has been recovered in January. The confidence of banks is also being restored,” he said.
Umar said that the supplementary finance bill was not a budget but an economic reforms package. “We are striving to bring improvement in the economy,” he said, rejecting the opposition’s criticism as mere political point scoring. “I am here in the house today but the opposition is missing.”
The chairman, taking note of the lack of quorum adjourned the session’s hearing for an indefinite time, while the finance minister had not completed his speech.
Earlier, the opposition, while protesting against the absence of ministers and failure of the government in presenting the PMDC ordinance, staged a walkout. Mian Raza Rabbani and Raja Zafarul Haq lamented that the government was not taking the Senate matters seriously.
As the opposition members started leaving the house, in protest, Senator Ateeq Shaikh was seen taking selfies, which prompted the chairman to censure him. Later, Leader of the House Shibli Faraz spoke with the opposition leaders and brought the members back in the house.