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Minister for Federal Education & Professional Training Shafqat Mahmood on Tuesday said that former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during his last tenure, which lasted for almost 50 months, remained out of country for 262 days and spent Rs 1.84 billion on foreign visits. Addressing a press conference after a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Shafqat Mahmood said the cabinet was given a detailed briefing on the number of foreign visits of former President Asif Zardari and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the expenditures incurred to the national exchequer. He said that Nawaz Sharif visited London 24 times and spent Rs 223.9 million on these trips, adding that the former PM visited Saudi Arabia 17 times, costing Rs 120 million to the treasury.
While giving details of Asif Ali Zardari's visits said that the former president during his presidency made 134 foreign visits and spent 257 days abroad and took 3,500 people along with him on these trips. "The visits cost Rs 1.42 billion to the national exchequer at a time when the country was under heavy burden of debt," he said. The minister went on to say that Zardari visited Dubai 51 times and spent Rs 100 million on these visits. Of these, 48 visits were private. He spent Rs 320 million on 17 visits to the UK.
He said Prime Minister Imran Khan is visiting the USA this month on the invitation of the US President Donald Trump, adding that it has been decided that the Prime Minister will stay at the residence of Pakistani ambassador to the US to cut expenditures. He further said that members of the delegation accompanying the Prime Minister will stay at a three-star hotel. "Every effort will be made to minimize expenditures during this visit," he added.
He said the cabinet also expressed concern over the fact that former Federal Minister Khawaja Asif was a salaried employee of a foreign organisation during the time of his minister-ship which was not only against his position but it also contravened his oath and especially when he remained as defence minister and foreign minister too. The cabinet directed the Interior Ministry to furnish a report after completing investigations into this violation.
While briefing media on decisions taken in cabinet meeting, Mahmood said the cabinet took notice that in any democracy the use of media for promotion of personal interests or to put national institutions under pressure by convicted criminals or under-trial persons is never allowed. The cabinet emphasised that the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) should fulfil its responsibilities to discourage such trend.
He said the government has sought a reply from the Pemra for interviewing of under-trial prisoners. Such practices are not adopted in any part of the world, he said while adding that media coverage of under-trial prisoners is not allowed. "A person accused of undermining the future of the country under heavy debt, who took advantage of his office and (illegally) earned billions of rupees and accumulated billions of dollars abroad, appears in court and is given a warm welcome," said Mehmood, adding, "And then he gives an interview to the media!"
"You are under arrest and have been accused of looting the nation's wealth, you are taken out to attend parliamentary sessions and you are giving interviews to the media and having flowers showered on you," he remarked. "This does not take place in any democracy anywhere. Yes, it is understandable if a person is out on bail, he may give interviews and does whatever he thinks he must do," he said.
He said that Prime Minister Imran Khan directed the Advisor on Finance Dr Abdul Hafeez Shaikh and Chairman FBR Shabbar Zaidi to ensure that prices of essential commodities including flour, ghee and pulses are kept to a reasonable level so that there is no additional burden on people of lower income backgrounds. He expressed deep concern over the trend of granting extensions in employment to some persons of certain organisations and criteria published in media to select them. The Prime Minister said strict action will be taken against the responsible persons of government organisations who show bias or favour while recruiting candidates for public sector jobs.
The education minister said that production order is not a law; however, the purpose is to call in a member of the Assembly to cast his vote so that on the passing of a bill, their absence is not taken as advantage by the government. "But you come, deliver speeches and gives interviews to media," he said, directly addressing Zardari, who is facing a corruption probe launched against him by National Accountability Bureau (NAB).
"If I go into the history of the production orders, let me tell you how this tradition came into being. This is not a law, it is a custom. This custom came into being because when there is a vote of confidence or some such matter where the government is formed on the basis of votes, a production order guards against the fact that the government could arrest all the MNAs (to get its way). The production order is there so that they (all MNAs) can cast their vote," he explained.
"But here, when Shahbaz Sharif's production orders were issued, he actually summoned the NAB chairman who had arrested him. In which democracy do these things take place?" Mehmood asked. The minister then sought to assert that the party is not, in any way, against the freedom of media. "Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf believes wholeheartedly in the freedom of the press. We have stood with the media and struggled with them in our 22-year history," he added. "But these sorts of traditions have no mention in the history of democracy anywhere," he reiterated.
The minister said the cabinet discussed the recommendations of Institutional Reforms Committee, which is formed under the chairmanship of Dr Ishrat Hussain, and it was suggested that another committee will be formed to ensure implementation. He said that visa on arrival facility has been approved for Qatari citizen as a goodwill gesture.
He said the cabinet approved formation of a new division, namely Culture and Heritage Division. The minister said Lok Virsa and Pakistan Nation Council of Arts (PNCA) will be affiliated with Culture and Heritage Division now, instead of information Ministry. The cabinet further approved the university plan in the PM House. He said the status of the PM House has been approved in its master plan which was required to be changed before going for construction of the university. The cabinet ensured that wheat prices would not be increase anymore. The cabinet also approved the appointment of chairman Port Qasim Authority.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2019

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