ISLAMABAD – Amid chanting of slogans and thumping of desks by opposition members, President Asif Ali Zardari presented a rosy picture of PPP-led coalition government’s performance during his historic address to a joint sitting of the parliament. However, he did not talk much about the future plans of the government.
It was for the first time a president of the country addressed the legislature for fifth time in a row. President Zardari saw gradual growth in the democratic institutions with the optimism that future free and fair elections to be held under an independent election commission and interim government to be set up in the light of the 20th constitutional amendment would further strengthen the democratic order in the country. And for it he was all praise to the prime minister, former Senate chairman, national assembly speaker and all the political stakeholders on both sides of the parliamentary aisle.
As soon as National Assembly Speaker Dr Fahmida Mirza invited the president to address the joint sitting, the members on the opposition benches stood up and started chanting slogans and thumping desks. The treasury benches’ members too took to desk thumping for quite sometime to support President Zardari when he rose up to take the rostrum, but it just added to the ear-deafening noise only to serve the purpose of opposition to spoil the event.
The speaker tried her level best to bring order to the house but her calls for calm down were lost to the uproar. After continuing with the hullabaloo for well over 15 minutes, the opposition parties including Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl, Pakistan People’s Party-Sherpao and Balochistan National Party staged walkout. A Pakistan People’s Party’s MNA from Balochistan, Syed Nasir Shah also staged a walkout when he was not allowed by the speaker to speak on a point of order. The treasury benches as well as President Zardari heave a sigh of relief when the opposition walked out of the venue.
Governors of the four provinces and Gilgit-Baltistan, chief ministers of Sindh, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan; President and Prime Minister of Azad Kashmir, services chiefs and ambassadors were among those present in the galleries during President Zardari’s address.
Instead of giving a review of the last parliamentary year, President Zardari gave an overview of the past four years performance and achievements of the PPP-led coalition government and the challenges they had confronted and overcome during the period.
Zardari said the elected government took difficult decisions to get out of the threatening situation, maintain economic stability and bring prosperity to vulnerable segments of the society and the country was beginning to show stronger growth of economy and lower inflation.
He particularly appreciated the political wisdom of the prime minister, saying: “Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani deserves our unqualified appreciation for his political wisdom in handling various challenges with courage and perseverance.”
The president also appreciated the contribution and support of the coalition partners to the PPP government.
He said they worked together to restore the 1973 constitution; rule of law has been established and supremacy of the parliament assured. As president, he surrendered his powers and now the chief executive (PM) enjoys full authority as required by the law, he added. “History will remember this achievement just as the nation remembers Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the architects of the 1973 constitution.”
Zardari said, “Our government is driven by the vision of Shaheed Benazir Bhutto and pursuing the politics of reconciliation and harmony. We have worked hard to generate consensus and took on board everyone.” Enumerating his party’s achievements, he said: “We formed coalition governments to deepen democracy. We moved with speed and determination to strengthen the federation by redressing the imbalance between the powers of the centre and the provinces. We abolished the concurrent list and transferred eighteen ministries to the provinces. We enhanced provincial autonomy and made the council of common interests fully functional”.
President Zardari said this great transformation was achieved with complete agreement of all the stakeholders. This, he said, shows complete unity of our nation in adopting legislation to make Pakistan strong and democracy more inclusive.
He referred to various challenges facing the country four year back and said, “We inherited the problems of militancy and terrorism, a divided nation, a fragile and weakened federation, unclear roles and mandates of different institutions, an altered constitution in violation of the 1973 constitution, disillusion in the smaller provinces and vulnerable groups, energy shortages and serious economic and balance of payment crises.”
The president said under the 7th NFC Award, share of the provinces has been increased and now nearly 70 percent of the resources are being transferred to them. This means there is more money for education, health, drinking water, municipal services and law and order. He said during the last two years alone over eight hundred billions rupees have additionally been transferred to the provinces to help transform the lives of the people.
About Balochistan, Zardari said he apologised for the wrongs done to its people in the past and Aghaz-e-Haqooq-e-Balochistan is under implementation to mitigate feeling of being left out. He, however, said much more needs to be done to heal the wounds of the past. “We will go extra mile to engage in dialogue with our Baloch brothers. We are seeking to reach common understanding on the development of the province and bring it at par with other provinces”.
The president said that the political reconciliation initiated in Balochistan should continue and be stepped up. He pointed out that healing wounds of the past is a lengthy process but the government was determined to respond to the aspirations of people of Balochistan. He said, “We have already created eleven thousand and five hundred jobs financed by the federal government in Balochistan. The government is disbursing arrears of 120 billion rupees on account of Gas Development Surcharge and doubling its share under the NFC.”
Referring to the challenge of terrorism and militancy, the president said the government adopted a multi-pronged approach to address the problem and its efforts were paying off and the situation was improving. He paid tributes to the courage and sacrifices of all those personnel of armed forces and civil law enforcing agencies who laid down their lives to secure the future of the nation.
Zardari said during the last four years the government took great strides in bringing the less developed regions into national mainstream. These include extension of Political Parties Act to the Tribal Areas, amendments in Frontier Crimes Regulation, conversion of tribal area of Kala Dhaka into a settled area and granting self-rule to people of Gilgit-Baltistan.
The president said during the tenure of the present government, it took difficult decisions to get out of a threatening situation, maintain economic stability and bring prosperity to our citizens. Relief was given to vulnerable segments of the society, government expenditures were reduced and domestic tax revenues mobilised to lessen dependence on others.
President Zardari said despite all difficulties, the economy is improving and it is set to grow by four percent in the current year. He said exports crossed a historic benchmark of 25 billion dollars last year; remittance were 11.2 billion dollar, foreign exchange reserves reached highest level ever at over 18 billion dollars and tax collection increased by 26% this year.
Turning to agriculture, President Zardari said wheat production is estimated at 25 million tonnes and cotton crop at 13 billion bales despite loss of two million bales in floods in Sindh. He said the government has adopted agricultural pricing policies so as to benefit farmers and bring prosperity to the rural areas. About 800 billion rupee additional income has been generated for the growers in the last two years.
He said the government spent 2,200 billion rupees on development programmes in four years and completed more than 200 projects. These include Chashma Nuclear Power-II, Mangla Raising, Mirani Dam, Islamabad-Peshawar Motorway and Islamabad-Muzaffarabad Expressway. He said new projects of national importance have been started including Basha Dam, Neelum-Jhelum hydropower, Tarbela Extension, Chashma Nuclear Power-3 and 4; and rebuilding of Karakoram and Indus highways. He said work will soon start on Karachi-Hyderabad Motorway on BOT basis.
The president said the government has tried to manage the economy with one primary focus to ensure that the benefits reach the common man. “We gave cash transfer of 70 billion rupees to flood victims to rebuild their lives, provided subsidy of hundred billion rupees in the power sector alone, besides, Rs110 billion subsidy was given on fertilisers. He said subsidy worth 137 billion rupees was provided for food items and Rs104 billion subsidy for petroleum products during the last four years. Salaries of all government employees were increased by more than 125 percent in the last four years.
Zardari referred to poverty alleviation measures and said Benazir Income Support Programme is the flagship programme under which six million families living below the poverty line have been identified for cash support. He said the government gave 138 billion rupees in four years. The principal beneficiaries are women heads of the households.
He said steps were also taken for the benefits of the employees including reinstatement of 7,000 wrongfully sacked employees and regularisation of 12,000 contract employees. He said six hundred and sixty thousand Pakistani workers were sent abroad for overseas jobs.
He said Benazir Employees Stock Option Scheme was introduced to give percent share of state owned enterprises to the employees. Shares worth several billion rupees have been given to more than half a million employees to make them owners of national assets. Internship was provided to one hundred thousand to Masters degree holders.
Zardari said the government was mindful of the problem of load-shedding and taking steps to address it through different means. He said the present government added 3,300 megawatt electricity to the national grid since 2008. He said our long-term policy to generate electricity is to move towards the power generation based on indigenous resources including coal and wind.
Asif Ali Zardari said the government is committed to work towards empowering women, their access to capital, building their skills and support the rise of women leaders. Towards this end, he said, the parliament made significant inroads in enacting laws for prevention of domestic violence and harassment, end anti-women practices and crimes of defacing human body. He said National Commission on Status of Women is yet another step forward in this direction. He said women are increasingly occupying key positions.
Turning to the relations with international community, President Zardari said Pakistan is committed to maintain bilateral relations with all on the principles of mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and equality. “We fully support an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process in Afghanistan. The government has signed the Pak-Afghan transit trade agreement, which will open up our trade with central Asian countries with whom we have historical ties.”
He said important steps have been taken to open up trade between India and Pakistan. “But we must also address difficult issues including that of Jammu and Kashmir.”
The president said Pakistan and China have a unique relationship, which is deeply rooted and mutually beneficial. He said his eight visits to China are a manifestation of taking this relationship to new heights.
Describing, Pak-US relations as multi-dimensional and important, he said 2011 was a challenging year and they were looking forward to parliament’s recommendations for re-engaging with Washington. “We seek to engage meaningfully with the US on the basis of mutual interest and mutual respect.”
The president said Pakistan’s relations with the European Union have expanded and deepened and “we attach importance to relations with Russia”. He said Pakistan enjoys close and fraternal relations with all brotherly Islamic countries. “We also seek to deepen our engagement with East Asia, Africa and Latin America.”
He said as active member of the international community “we uphold the principles of United Nations. It is a measure of our standing in international community that Pakistan was elected as member of the United Nations Security Council last year”.