ISLAMABAD - The opposition lawmakers in the Senate yesterday asked the government to review its decision of freezing defence budget in wake of threats the country was facing from its eastern and western borders.

The house resumed its debate on Finance Bill 2019-20 after a break of two days and six lawmakers both from the treasury and opposition benches took part in discussion amid low attendance of senators from both sides. As many as 12 lawmakers, 11 percent out of 104-member house, were present at the outset and 19 (18 percent) at the adjournment of the sitting.

Jamaat-e-Islami Senator Mushtaq Ahmed, taking part in debate, said if government’s decision to freeze defence budget in the finance bill was translated into real terms, it faced a cut because of the devaluation of rupee against dollar and an increase in overall volume of the federal budget 2019-20. “On the other side, India is purchasing Rafale fighter jets and modern tanks and is increasing its defence budget continuously,” he remarked.

The JI lawmaker said that the PTI government in its first 10 months had failed to meet basic economic targets set in the last fiscal year and the Economic Survey of Pakistan released a day before the budget announcement spoke volume of the same.

Giving examples, he said the government had projected growth rate of GDP at 6.2 percent but it remained at 3.2 percent in the last fiscal year. Similarly, the government had set inflation rate of 6 percent but it remained at 9.1 percent.

“In its first 10 months, the government has pushed the country’s economy to ventilator as petrol prices have increased exorbitantly,” he said.

Senator Ahmed claimed that government had failed to address basic challenges in budget documents that country’s economy was facing. These challenges included low growth rate of GDP, current account deficit, national debt servicing, inflation and unemployment, circular debt and bleeding state-owned enterprises, he added.

“Similarly, there are some weak aspects of the budget,” the JI senator said. He said that tax collection of Rs 5550 billion set for the Federal Board of Revenue was unrealistic as it only collected Rs3900 billion out of Rs4400 billion target of previous year. Similarly, there was increase of 39 percent in indirect taxes and 25 percent in direct taxes in the bill. “Indirect taxes are harmful, increase poverty but easy to collect.”  He said the budget of education and health had been cut down to 28 percent and 21 percent, respectively. He reminded that PTI used to say that it would spend on human development when it was in opposition. He said the government had promised to give Rs 100 billion to erstwhile FATA annually but only 48 billion had been allocated for these districts. “This is robbery on the rights of tribal people.”

Giving his suggestion to improve budget, he said firstly this budget should give a roadmap of interest-free economy. Secondly, the government should have announced the National Finance Commission Award and the budget was unconstitutional without the award. “Direct taxes should be increased. There should be across the board accountability and there should be no tax amnesty scheme.”  He said government should bring country’s 45 percent undocumented economy into documentation form. He also urged that all political parties should sit together and give a charter of economy to revive economy as only the government had no capacity to revive it.

Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Senator Asad Ali Khan Junejo taking part in the budget discussion also said that government should review its decision to freeze defence budget for next fiscal year 2019-20.

“The government has actually made a cut in defence budget keeping in view the devaluation of rupee and rising inflation. On one side, we are asking the army to move forward on eastern and western borders because of rising tensions there and on the other side, we have made a cut in its budget,” he said.

“I will say that defence budget should be reviewed and it should be raised properly so that our army should be well-equipped to defend our country,” Senator Junejo urged.

He lamented that the present budget was formed by the foreign economic experts. The local experts should have done this. “Local experts always have in their minds issues of public while making the budget because they have to face them,” he said.

PTI Senator Noman Wazir remarked that the government had earmarked Rs90 billion for defence production. He said the defence industries should be asked to make a viable business plan instead of using getting money from government. He said the government had taken loans from International Monetary Fund (IMF) at low interest rate than last government took from China. He also said that government should be ready to bring a charter of economy and a committee headed by any opposition party should be formed in this connection.

PML-N Senator Chaudhry Tanveer Ahmad appreciated the performance of last government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and said he helped the country to overcome energy crisis and elimination of terrorism. “Due to last government, foreign direct investment came into the country,” he said and credited PML-N for bringing China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Project and FATA reforms. He urged the need to review the budget.

Muttahida Qaumi Movement Senator Mian Ateeq Shaikh said the government should broaden the tax net and increase capacity of FBR by bringing in maximum use of technology.