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ARTICLE: The narrative of Prime Minister Imran Khan's signature Ehsaas programme, which has subsumed Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), as a reflection of his ideological commitment to the uplift of the poor and vulnerable, has been a difficult sell to a public that was introduced to cash disbursements through BISP as far back as in 2008 - twelve years ago.

The last press release under BISP was uploaded on the Ehsaas network on 1 November 2019 highlighting the visit of World Bank President David Malpass to BISP headquarters. Dr Sania Nishtar, referred to as Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Poverty Alleviation/Chairperson BISP, briefed Malpass on "the importance attached by the government to the uplift of the marginalized segments of society and positive contribution Ehsaas is making to address poverty and inequality in Pakistan... The Chairperson also informed Malpass of a new payment model of Kifalat programme which will promote financial inclusion of women through one woman one bank account."

There are no press releases in December 2019 from the Ehsaas/BISP programme perhaps because a survey using proxy means test (PMT) methodology to ascertain the eligibility of existing beneficiaries was ongoing. In the words of the BISP website, the "PTI government's deep cleansing of BISP by virtue of a unique initiative involving the use of data analytics for an integrity drive" revealed "how blatantly convenient it can be for governments to misuse tax-payers' money to win political support in an attempt to grab votes."

It, therefore, came as no surprise that total number of government employees removed from the list were 142,556 including 2543 officers (grade 17 to 21) who were illegally benefiting from BISP cash grants, thereby depriving the truly deserving. In addition, some of the BISP beneficiaries had graduated over time - and this was ascertained by (i) foreign travel by the beneficiary or spouse; (ii) ownership of a vehicle; (iii) PTCL or mobile bill of 1000 rupees or more per month; and (iv) a passport procured from an executive center or three or more family members receiving CNIC through executive processing.

This exercise enabled the BISP management to remove 820,165 beneficiaries from a total of 5.90 million (with 4.27 million beneficiaries remaining) - 14 percent, a sizeable percentage. A decision to undertake such an exercise each year was taken to wean out those who are illegally accessing the cash grant or those who have graduated out of the programme.

Notwithstanding weaning out the ineligible an evaluation of the BISP by Oxford Policy Management dated March 2020 notes that "BISP has already produced impressive poverty reduction results over the period 2011-2019, which has produced real improvements in welfare. The transfer is designed to support the needs of the poorest 20 percent which means at this point, following welfare gains over a period of 8 years, the power of the transfer to produce further poverty reduction for current beneficiaries has diminished. Despite considerable efforts by BISP to periodically increase the nominal value of the transfer, the real value of the transfer has decreased by 9 percent since 2011 in the face of high inflation..... BISP, by design, is a considerable force to support poverty reduction in Pakistan, which could be enhanced through on-going re-targeting efforts (reference to the survey using PXT) to identify the poorest 20 percent of households in Pakistan as well as by continued efforts to maintain the real value of the transfer."

The Ehsaas Emergency Cash Programme post-Covid19 added another 7.73 million beneficiaries giving a total of 12 million beneficiaries; and the government added 4.16 million more under the emergency programme giving a total of 16.16 million beneficiaries. The current population of Pakistan is 220,873, 273 as of Thursday, July 2, 2020, as per Worldometer elaboration of the latest United Nations data, giving the percentage covered under Ehsaas/BISP at 7 percent. However, the addition in the number of BISP beneficiaries has not kept pace with the budgeted allocation, no doubt because of serious financial constraints facing the government and with the numbers pushed below the poverty line due to the International Monetary Fund supported contractionary policies exacerbated by Covid-19 from March 2020 onwards.

The budget for the current fiscal year shows budgeted allocation for BISP last year at 180 billion rupees with the revised estimates of 234.2 billion rupees, no doubt due to the rise in the number of beneficiaries. The current year's budgeted amount is 208 billion rupees which is unlikely to meet the needs of the rising number of poor and vulnerable.

The Economic Survey 2019-20 notes that out of the 37.9 million non-agriculture workers, 27.3 million (72 percent) work in the informal sector.....(and) are most at risk of losing their livelihoods as a result of Covid19 crisis. The top two sectors where these informal economy workers are employed are wholesale and retail trade (33 percent) and manufacturing (23 percent)." This data no doubt led the Prime Minister to take the decision to support smart as opposed to total lockdown with the Survey projecting that a moderate slowdown would lead to 12.5 million to 15.5 million becoming unemployed while a complete lockdown would leave 18.7 to 19.1 unemployed. There is no doubt that it is an achievement of the government to reach an additional 11.89 million through the Ehsaas emergency cash programme which is impressive for a country that is in dire economic straits.

However, from 1 January 2020 onwards, press releases were issued not under BISP but under the ehsaas programme with Dr Sania Nishtar being referred to as Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Social Protection and Poverty Alleviation with no mention of BISP though the logo on the upper left side of the page was unchanged with BISP spelt out.

To take ownership of a good programme or policy initiated by political rivals, however corrupt or nepotistic one may regard them to be, strengthens the credentials of the successor. Tony Blair for example took over ownership of Northern Ireland's peace process and is mainly if not exclusively given credit for it even though John Major of the Conservative Party initiated the difficult process.

The name BISP was consistently a thorn for PML-N with what was widely dismissed as Ishaq Dar's pettiness for consistently claiming credit for the programme during his less than one-and-a-half month tenure as the Finance Minister in the PPP-led government in 2008. The PPP never challenged or denied this claim which many maintain shows Dar was speaking the truth however others say that by not responding the PPP indicated it did not merit a response. Be that as it may, the Khan administration appears to be following the Dar lead.

To conclude, the success of Ehsaas/BISP bears overwhelming testimony to the fact that a competent and dedicated Minister, Dr Sania Nishtar, will bear widely appreciated positive results; and a name change from Ehsaas would be one of the first executive decisions taken when Imran Khan is no longer the prime minister and his party defeated at the polls though his input into the programme cannot be challenged by any successor.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020