Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) was lauded within the country and among international financial institutions for sustenance of the very poor who were, otherwise, unable to meet their basic requirements and keep their bodies and souls together. However, of late, the programme has been criticised for providing assistance to those who did not deserve it due mainly to political patronage. In a cabinet meeting chaired by the Prime Minister on 24th December, 2019, Sania Nishtar, Special Assistant to the PM on Social Welfare and Poverty Alleviation, revealed that the database of the BISP had certain faults and was revised to exclude "undeserving" persons from the list with the help of NADRA. In order to arrive at a decision, it was being ascertained whether the family of a beneficiary had any motorcycle or a car or whether a spouse was a government employee. Those who had over 12 acres of land also did not fall into the category of deserving people. "If we look into such aspects, then it comes to the fore that 820,165 people should not come into the purview of BISP," argued Sania Nishtar. After this revelation, the cabinet approved the removal of these people from the BISP database, describing the beneficiaries as "undeserving" and decided to provide under the BISP relief to 13,982 families living on the Line of Control (LoC).
The BISP database also revealed certain strange aspects. Out of 820,165 persons removed from the list, more than 140,000 were those who or their spouses were government employees despite the fact that the facility was not meant for government servants. According to the data, 153,302 beneficiaries were those whose spouses travelled abroad once and who travelled abroad more than once numbered 10,476. Six hundred and ninety two persons were removed from the database because they owned one or more than one vehicle, while 43,746 were deprived of the facility because their spouses had one or more than one car. A person who can pay monthly telephone bill of Rs 1,000 or more was not eligible to get monthly stipend from the programme and, therefore, 24,546 people were removed for falling into this category.
We feel that Dr. Sania Nishtar has done well to initiate this exercise to find undeserving persons listed under the BISP and then getting the necessary approval from the Cabinet to remove their names from the database. Obviously, if such an exercise was initiated earlier, a lot of money would have been spared that could have been disbursed to really deserving people. However, it is never too late to take up such a useful review at any stage. Even the present exercise on BISP's database could enable the government to redirect pecuniary resources to those segments of society who deserve it and remove undeserving persons from the list. Nishtar has claimed that the exclusion of non-deserving persons from the database would result into a Rs 16 billion saving annually. It is strange to know that even government servants, persons owning cars and touring abroad and paying high utility bills have been getting benefits under the scheme. In our view, this was probably known by the concerned authorities but they had been ignoring this fact for political reasons. It was no secret that reservations had also been expressed by some of the present cabinet members in the previous meetings that the supporters of opposition parties, especially those backing the Pakistan People's Party, were benefiting from the programme, while those belonging to the ruling PTI were being ignored. The political aspect of the BISP could also be gauged from the statement of Bakhtawar Bhutto, daughter of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who criticised the government for excluding undeserving persons from the BISP database by saying that "almost one million beneficiaries of the only social safety net for women are cut off for not meeting just one of the ridiculous criteria. Shameful that the idea of further suppressing and taking away independence of a woman came from a woman. Cut off from monthly stipend because of her husband's phone bill." Political undertones are not difficult to decipher from this statement or the reservations of the cabinet members of the PTI. It seems that political parties are more interested in getting political mileage from the scheme than helping the very poor of society. Launched in July, 2008, the BISP is the country's largest social safety net programme with around 6 million beneficiaries and has disbursed about Rs 700 billion as cash transfers up to now. The BISP had released Rs 15 billion in 2008-09 but its disbursements are now well over Rs 100 billion per annum. The present government is committed to scaling up activities of BISP and has also launched Ehsaas programme with, more or less, similar characteristics. We know that such programmes are essential to remove hunger, help poverty stricken people and mitigate vulnerability but these programmes need to be managed in a way that the benefits reach the targeted people and political interference is avoided to the maximum extent possible. One way to do that could be to assign the job to a completely neutral and independent body which could function transparently, honestly and without any prejudice.