NationalVolume 14 Issue # 16

PTI’s own goal

The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government has shelved a plan to increase the salaries of Punjab Assembly’s legislators after Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed “extreme disappointment” at it. The plan, though not implemented, has caused a huge loss to the party and maligned its image in the public.

It was not shocking when legislators from the government and the opposition joined hands for their personal gains and passed the bill to increase their salaries threefold in few minutes. However, Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar’s inability to stop the bill or his tacit support for it has stumped PTI supporters, who wanted the ruling party to act differently from previous governments. If passed, the pay raise would have been unprecedented in Pakistan’s history. It has further maligned the image of Chief Minister Usman Buzdar, who is accused of being inapt and inexperienced by his critics, after facing harsh criticism over his heavy protocol and use of a special plane in his initial days in office. It was feared he could lose his job after the debacle but many factors retrained Prime Minister Imran Khan from removing him.

The Punjab Assembly Members (MPAs) have been demanding an increase in the salary on the grounds that their colleagues in other provinces, particularly in Balochistan, are drawing much higher pays and fringe benefits. However, they ignore the fact that the number of MPAs in the Punjab Assembly is more than the number of MPAs in all the provincial assemblies. Even a meagre raise in their salaries puts a huge burden on the national exchequer. The Punjab Assembly’s bill aimed to increase salaries of the chief minister, ministers, speaker and deputy speaker, chairmen of committees, advisers, special assistants and all members through amendments to different laws, each relating to each category. It sought an increase in the monthly salary of the speaker from the existing Rs37,000 to Rs200,000, of the deputy speaker from Rs35,000 to Rs 185,000, of the chief minister from Rs39,000 to Rs300,000, of the ministers from Rs35,000 to Rs185,000, of the parliamentary secretaries from Rs20,000 to Rs83,000, of the special assistants form Rs35,000 to Rs185,000, of advisers from Rs30,000 to Rs185,000, and of MPAs from Rs18,000 to Rs 80,000. The bill also recommended an increase in the amounts of their utility bills, sumptuary allowances, etc. It proposed an upward revision of the annual travelling allowance of the parliamentary secretaries from the existing Rs120,000 to Rs200,000. If the bill had been passed, each MPA would have been getting more than the prime minister. According to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s salary slip, he earns less than other ministers in his cabinet. He also earns less than the chief ministers of all four provinces. He earns Rs196,179 per month which includes basic salary of Rs107280, Rs50,000 in Sumptuary Allowance, Rs21,456 in Adhoc Relief Allowance, Rs12,110 in Ad hoc Allowance and Rs10,728 in Ad hoc Relief All.

Under the bill, five former chief ministers were entitled to at least 16 personnel of the government in addition to three official vehicles for life. Moreover, a “government maintained” house was to be provided to the former chief ministers for life in Lahore, if they don’t own any residence in the Punjab capital. The bill also allowed use of airport VIP lounges by sitting and former MPAs. They were also entitled to official passports. Diplomatic passports were recommended for former elected chief ministers while former MPAs would get free indoor and outdoor medical facilities of the same standards available to the sitting legislators.

After the passage of the bill, Prime Minister Imran Khan summoned Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar for an explanation. When the bill was approved, the prime minister had taken to Twitter to express his “extreme disappointment” over the move, saying that it was “untenable” in the current atmosphere when the country “(does) not have resources to provide basic amenities to all our people”. Two days after the premier had publicly denounced the move, Punjab Assembly Speaker Pervez Elahi reviewed the bill and amended a clause that proposed the increase in perks and privileges provided to the lawmakers. The amendment removed the lifetime perks and privileges of the chief minister, leaving intact only “suitable and adequate security”.

After the bill was presented and passed in the assembly, social media expressed strong reservations against it. Cynthia D. Ritchie, a Pakistan-based American filmmaker, said “for those of us who were supportive – or at the very least hopeful – of genuine #austerity measures, this is a huge disappointment. The same CM accused of having excess protocol/security convoy a few months ago is now accused of excessive salary increases. Bovine fertilizer!” Many PTI supporters pointed out that if the government itself was not following the prime minister’s instructions to reduce expenses, who else shall be?

Besides the prime minister, several federal ministers reacted to the pay hike and took to Twitter to express their disappointment. Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari, said, “Punjab legislature directly contravenes PTI government policy of austerity and cost cutting. Shameful behavior in these financially critical times!” Awn Chaudhary, Advisor to the Chief Minister Punjab, whose main salary already goes to Shaukat Khanum Hospital, also tweeted that he had “refused to accept the increased salary from the Punjab government.”

Prime Minister Imran Khan has managed to block the bill. Still, critics say he should have acted much earlier, when the bill was presented and approved. The passage of the bill has already harmed him. It was also a failure on part of the chief minister that he could not timely inform the prime minister about it. It also shows that the chief minister is a weak link between the Centre and the province and that the fault lines in the provincial government are beginning to resurface.

It is speculated that the prime minister wanted to replace the chief minister but PTI’s thin majority in the Punjab Assembly and support of allies for Usman Buzdar stopped him from it. So, he decided to give another chance to him, with directions to take steps for improvement in governance in the province. The chief minister will have to make to most of the last chance to prove his critics wrong.