Islamabad, June 7: Pakistan’s finance minister Shaukat Aziz vowed today to continue with economic reforms in his 2003-04 budget, though his voice was drowned out by Opposition protests against the military’s role in politics.
“Pakistan is standing at a crossroads,” Aziz said. “If we continue with the same policies we will progress.”
His voice was audible on television but could only be heard through headphones in the National Assembly itself, as Opposition parliamentarians thumped their desks and chanted slogans against President Pervez Musharraf. “No Musharraf, go Musharraf,” they chanted in unison.
The Opposition, protesting over the Legal Framework Order had announced it would not participate in the proceedings, as its talks with the government on the issue had not been successful. The Opposition has been demanding that the order be presented in the Assembly and that Musharraf shed his uniform and hold only one post.
Undeterred, Aziz presented a Pak Rs 805 billion budget, with direct defence spending remaining at Rs 160 billion.
Aziz said the economy grew 5.1 per cent in 2002-03, above an initial target of 4.5 per cent, adding that the budget deficit had come in on target at 4.6 per cent of gross domestic product.
Aziz was able to take advantage of the rescheduling of $12.5 billion in foreign debt, granted after Pakistan threw its weight behind the US-led war on terror. Partly as a result, he said development spending, the latest leg in economic reforms, would be raised to Rs 160 billion, up 30 per cent from 2002-03.
In a populist move, he raised civil servants’ salaries and pensions by 15 per cent.
Aziz also unveiled measures to boost investment and economic growth, particularly in the housing sector. He said income tax relief would be made available for mortgage borrowing.
Excise duties would be abolished on paper, wires and cables, and reduced by 25 per cent on cement, he said. “This will promote construction and generate employment,” he said.
Business leaders and analysts said the budget was a step in the right direction. “This will help generate economic activity,” said Majyd Aziz, a leading businessman in Karachi.
Pervez attack case
As the uproar over the budget continued, an anti-terrorism court in Karachi today began trying five persons accused of conspiring and planning to kill Musharraf by blowing up his motorcade last year.
Prosecution said four of the accused belong to a banned militant organisation — Harkatul Mujahideen al-Aalmi —while the fifth was an inspector in the paramilitary rangers.
The main accused — Mohammed Imran, Mohammed Hanif and Sharib — were arrested in connection with the bomb attack on the US consulate in Karachi on June 14, 2001. The first two have already been sentenced to death in that case on April 14 this year.
Police indicted on April 24 those accused for of trying to kill Musharraf. Today, the prosecution presented three witnesses, including the investigating officer of the case.
The accused had planned to blow up Musharraf’s motorcade on April 26, 2001, when he arrived in Karachi for his referendum campaign, the official said.