LAHORE - Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif has said the gap between rich and poor must be filled or “everything will crumble”.

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If class differences continued, the whole socio-economic structure would be uprooted, the chief minister said at a ceremony at Badshahi Masjid held in connection with the CM Self-Employment Scheme.

Shehbaz said for elimination of unemployment and poverty, economic progress at fast pace was needed, which in turn required promotion of agriculture and industrial sector and strengthening of small loan programmes.

He said the self-employment scheme was a revolutionary step to bridge the rich-poor gap and enable the needy persons to earn a respectful leaving.

Under this scheme, interest-free loans of Rs40 billion have been distributed in 1.8 million families - comprising 22.5 million people - in the Punjab in six years, the CM informed the media.

“Today more than 60 crore rupees will be distributed in 25,000 families due to which their new lives will begin,” the CM announced.

The ratio of return on these loans is 99.9 percent, he said, as he admired the Pakistanis who return their loans. “I salute these great Pakistanis who have returned loans and used them with honesty and sincerity,” the chief minister said.

“... on the other there are those rich people who, despite having Mercedes cars, factories and lucrative posts, have got written off loans worth billions of rupees through bribes and political approach.”

He said many of the rich were eating out the country like termite. “The rich have plundered the national kitty mercilessly and made the country bankrupt and this is not a fairy-tale; rather, this is what we all have witnessed,” Shehbaz said.

“This [looting and plundering] is not in line with the ideology of Pakistan, whose founders - Quaid-e-Azam and Allama Iqbal - had not dreamt of a country where the rich could deprive the poor of their hard-earned income like this.”

Shehbaz said for elimination of poverty and unemployment, stability is needed. He said if Allah Almighty gave them another chance to serve the country, the self-employment programme will be extended to the whole of Pakistan so that Pakistanis could get respectable employment and become self-reliant.

The CM said they had given Azad Kashmir Rs1.5 billion from their funds this year so that welfare projects move forward there.

“We will bury begging bowl once and for all,” he said, recalling a key slogan of ruling party’s election campaign for 2013 general elections.

Without naming their avowed political opponent, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf of Imran Khan, the CM said that well-aware Pakistanis will decide in the 2018 elections that the culture of allegations, lies and abuses should continue or be buried.

“Pakistan cannot afford disunity because it is a poison. If magnified beyond limit, the political and cultural differences would create such a level of disunity that everything will turn to ashes, God forbid,” he warned.

The chief minister said “in this ceremony being held in this mosque we all pray that Allah Almighty give strength to governments, rulers, politicians, judges and the rich that they take step ahead and hold the hands of the poor people”.

He said: “The idea of this great [self-employment] program came to my mind when I met Dr Amjad Saqib during my exile and at that time dictator Musharraf was ruling the country. I prayed that the PML-N should work on this unique and innovative idea if it came to power so that millions of people could become self-reliant.

“This idea came into my mind in 2005 and today is 2018, and I am satisfied and happy that Allah Almighty gave strength and enabled me to give practical shape to this programme.”

Shehbaz Sharif said the Punjab Educational Endowment Fund was also a historic measure through which resourceless students were getting higher education and by the next two months the number of beneficiaries from this fund would increase to three and a half lakh.

Enumerating other achievements of PML-N, he said a key feet of the party was elimination of loadshedding from the country. In 2013, there was darkness everywhere in the country and loadshedding haunted educational institutions, hospitals, government offices and markets, he added.

The CM said PML-N government generated thousands of megawatts of power in just four and a half years while those who made lofty claims of generating electricity in KP [Khyber Pakhtunkhwa] have failed to produce even a single kilowatt of electricity, though the province has the capacity to create thousands of megawatts. He said a project of 50 megawatt was installed Nori Abadi in Sindh, though it cost the double than it would have cost in Punjab.

Shehbaz Sharif said the country has unlimited resources but the rich is becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer. “We should all join hands for progress in Punjab, Sindh, KP, Balochistan and Azad Kashmir as Pakistan will progress when all these federating units will progress.”

He said hard work and honesty should be our founding principles so that Pakistan could get respectable place in the community of the nations.

The chief minister later distributed cheques under the self-employment program. Provincial ministers Rana Sanaullah Khan, Malik Nadeem Kamran and Mujtaba Shujaur Rehman; Akhuwat Dr Amjad Saqib; and other people were also present on the occasion.