FeaturedNationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 13

Cabinet at 78 and counting

When Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif appointed a businessman his special assistant recently, the size of his cabinet swelled to 78 members. The government claims most advisers and special assistants work honorarily and do not avail salary, perks and privileges. Even if the assertion is accepted, the large number of ministers, advisers and special assistants do not convey a good message to the common people that the government is serious about the national economy, which is in dire straits, especially after the devastating floods, which left millions of people homeless, who still have not been rehabilitated.

Among the 78 cabinet members, 34 are federal ministers, seven ministers of state, four are advisers to the Prime Minister and 33 are special assistants to the Prime Minister. Besides, there are 38 parliamentary secretaries in the National Assembly, who answer questions of the members on behalf of the ministers in their absence. According to another report, the actual size of the cabinet is 85, including 34 federal ministers, seven ministers of state, four advisers and 40 special assistants. According to the opposition, the government is “squandering” money on cabinet expansion. PTI leader Farrukh Habib said the government was close to making a century of cabinet members. In a statement, he said the government was putting more burden of inflation on the common people. However, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah told a news channel that the special assistants were not availing official perks and privileges. “They were appointed not to gain political mileage but just to recognise their services,” he claimed.

Speaking in the Upper House, Jamaat-e-Islami Senator Mushtaq Ahmed criticised the government for adding five more ministers to the cabinet, bringing their total to 88. “It seems that by March, the century of the ministers will be completed,” he added. He quipped that the Prime Minister would have to appoint a separate minister for counting the rest of them, adding that it was the “biggest” cabinet in the world. He grilled the new cabinet members for remaining absent from the Senate and asked the chairman to write to the Prime Minister to take notice of their negligence.

The number of ministers is increasing rapidly at a time when Pakistan is facing the worst inflation of its history and the common people find it hard to make both ends meet. The Sensitive Price Indicator (SPI)-based inflation for the week ended February 9, recorded an increase of 0.17pc due to an increase in the prices of food and non-food items. According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS), the year-on-year trend depicts an increase of 34.83pc mainly due to a hike in the prices of onions (507.98pc), chicken (93.21pc), diesel (81.41pc), eggs (79.19pc), rice basmati broken (68.92pc), petrol (68.77pc), rice irri-6/9 (68.26pc), pulse moong (66.30pc), tea (63.92pc), bananas (61.88pc), pulse gram (56.80pc), bread (50.66pc), LPG (50.41pc), pulse maash (50.25pc) and salt (46.46pc). The SPI for the week under review in the group was recorded at 228.17 points against 227.79 points in the previous week. During the week, out of 51 items, prices of 29 (56.87pc) items increased, 5 (9.80pc) items decreased and 17 (33.33pc) items remained stable.

On the other hand, the government approved a significant hike in the electricity tariff in the range of Rs3.3 to Rs15.52 per unit for residential consumers, farmers and exporters to recover an additional Rs237 billion in four months. It also approved an increase in prices of 18 drugs. The government has approved the passing of a Rs237 billion additional burden on consumers through a direct tariff increase and an indirect increase through the withdrawal of subsidies given to exporters and farmers. The revised plan shows the government has passed on the additional impact of Rs237 billion to end-consumers in almost all categories from March to June 2023.

In order to implement a major prior condition set by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for striking a staff-level agreement with Pakistan, the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) of the Cabinet approved up to a 124pc hike in the tariff of gas across the board for six months — January to June. For households consuming up to 100 cubic metres of gas, the rate has been hiked by 16.6pc to Rs350 per MMBTU, an increase of Rs50 per MMBTU. For domestic consumers, who use 200 cubic metres, the rate has been increased by 32pc to Rs730 per MMBTU. A 69pc hike in the tariff has been approved for consumers of up to 300 cubic metres of gas, and it will now cost them Rs1,250 per MMBTU. For domestic consumers utilising gas up to 400 cubic metres, the rate has been hiked by 99pc to Rs2,200 per MMBTU. For households using more than 400 cubic metres of gas, the rate has been increased by 124pc to Rs3,277 per MMBTU. After a 28.6pc hike, the gas price for commercial consumers has been increased from Rs 1,283 per MMBTU to Rs 1,650 per MMBTU.

The price of gas for the power sector has been increased from Rs857 per MMBTU to Rs1,050 per MMBTU following an increase of 22.8pc. For the export industry, after a 34pc hike, the rate has been increased up to Rs1,100 per MMBTU. The CNG sector will have to pay Rs1,800 per MMBTU following a hike of 31pc. After an increase of 46pc, the fertiliser sector will be provided gas at Rs1,500 per MMBTU. The cement sector will pay Rs1,500 per MMBTU following an increase of 17.46% in the gas price. The hike in the power and gas tariff means people will have to face a tsunami of inflation in the coming weeks.

The rising number of ministers, advisers and special assistants is also against the spirit of the government’s austerity drive. It is clear that such a large number of ministers are not needed to run the government which had voted out Imran Khan’s government to “mitigate the suffering” of the common people. The government still has many months to complete its tenure and it may induct more ministers and advisers. However, it must realise that it will have to go to polls at last.