ISLAMABAD            -          The government, on Friday, in the Senate defended its decision of massive layoffs in the Pakistan Steel Mills (PSM) saying that the accumulated losses of the state-owned enterprises had surpassed the annual defence budget outlay and previous government were responsible for that.

Minister for Industries Hammad Azhar, answering questions of the lawmakers during the question hour, told the house that previous governments were responsible for the enormous losses faced by state-owned enterprises as they made huge inductions into these organizations. He called previous governments as visionless, and backward for doing all this. “The previous successive governments of PML-N and PPP could neither revive nor privatize the mills.”

On last Wednesday, the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) of the cabinet had approved retrenchment of all the 9,350 remaining employees of PSM with a one-time severance cost of about Rs 20bn.

The minister informed the house that in the first phase, the government wanted to give a compensation package to about 8,500 employees. He said each of these employees would on average be getting Rs 2.3 million, with some getting more depending on the pay scale and service length.

Giving a background, the minister reminded that PSM started production in 1985 and ran in losses in 2008-2009 that caused its shut down in 2015. He said that the government paid Rs 35 billion to the industrial unit, despite zero production, in salaries since then.

Hammad told the house that since 2008, the federal government had given bailout packages amounting to Rs 90 billion to the mills. He said the monthly salary bill of the PSM stood at Rs 350 million. “When PTI came into power, the PSM had debt liabilities of Rs 211 billion in addition to accumulated losses of Rs 176 billion.”

He said the PSM was spread over an area of 19,000 acres and the government wanted to lease out core operations of the mills for privatization purposes on an area covering 1,800 acre out of it.

“We want partnership with private investor for operations,” the minister underlined. He said that the government would go for debt restructuring before privatization of the mills which currently had liabilities of Rs 230 billion.

PML-N senator Lt General (retd) Abdul Qayyum, who served as chairman PSM from January 2004 to September 2006 told the house that the mills had liabilities of Rs 7.8 billion when he assumed the charge. “In around three years, the PSM earned a gross profit of Rs 18 billion and paid Rs six billion in taxes,” he said, adding, that the PSM had a bank balance of Rs 10 billion and a stock of finished goods and raw material worth Rs 12 billion, when he left the charge in September 2006.

The parliamentary leader of PML-N in the House Mushahid Ullah Khan recalled that Prime Minister Imran Khan used to make claims that the PTI after coming into power would successfully run PSM operations. He added that Minister for Planning Asad Umar had been making similar claims and now he should resign.

Leader of the Opposition in the Senate Raja Muhammad Zafarul Haq stressed that the massive retrenchment would have implications and asked Chairman Senate to refer the matter to the standing committee concerned. He said that the committee should decide what kind of the implications these would be? On this, the chair referred the matter to the standing committee.

Answering another question, Hammad informed the house that the government planned to use frequent travelers’ data and details of commercial and industrial gas connections in a meaningful manner to bring more people into tax net.

He said it was for the first time that a concrete exercise was underway to integrate the data lying in government files in an organized manner. He said it was not harassment in any way. He said that if the lifestyle, expenses and business operations of some individuals were contrary to their details of the taxes they paid and they were not even filing tax returns, it was the right of the government to tax them. Otherwise, the common man would have to bear the brunt, he added. He said that the number of tax filers had increased from 1.6 million to 2.6 million in a period of one year as a result of steps taken by the present government.

The minister said that our tax collection also witnessed twenty seven percent growth before the breakout of COVID-19. He said the post pandemic had seen thirty percent decline in tax collection but expressed the confidence that the situation would improve as the business activities were being resumed.

The Minister said databases are being used to improve the tax collection. He said the government plans to phase out import based duties and focus on domestic taxation. The Advisor to the Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs Zaheer-ud-Din Babar Awan laid before the house a copy of the Money Bill, the Members of Parliament (Salaries and Allowances) (Amendment) Bill, 2020, seeking recommendations of the Senate. The money bill has to be laid before the house under Article 73 of the Constitution.

On this Jamaat-e-Islami Senator Mushtaq Ahmed remarked that the parliament was not giving a good message by introducing this bill at a time when the country was facing a crisis. “This is not the proper time to lay this bill,” he remarked.

However, PML-N Senator Javed Abbasi said that the impression was wrong that the bill had been introduced to increase travelling (fare) tickets of the parliamentarians. He said that the bill had been introduced to change the procedure of use of those travelling tickets to which the lawmakers were entitled to.

The house unanimously passed a resolution, jointly moved by government and opposition, while taking serious notice of barbaric atrocities and human rights violation against Muslim population of Indian Occupied Kashmir.

“This house unanimously condemns extra judicial killings of 13 unarmed innocent youths, the other day,” reads the resolution moved by Leader of the Opposition in the Senate Raja Muhammad Zafarul Haq. The resolution demanded immediate action from the UN Secretary General on the matter.

“The house declares fullest support to the cause of plebiscite in the Indian Occupied Kashmir which is the only peaceful and democratic way of resolving this burning issue,” reads the resolution, adding that the house fully supports the strong stance against the illegal incursions of India into Chinese territory.

The advisor to the PM on parliamentary affairs also laid before the house the Annual Post-Election Review Report on General Elections-2018 of the Election Commission of Pakistan, as required under Elections Act, 2017.