EDITORIAL: Prime Minister Imran Khan while speaking at the launch of the Ehsaas pilot programme Koi Bhuka Na Soye (no one goes to sleep hungry) stated that an entirely new system of targeted subsidies to the poor and deserving families is being developed. The concept without doubt is fully supported by all sections of society inside and without the country.
The Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), launched in 2008, less than three months into the tenure of the PPP-led government, was hailed by both international donors’ as well domestic economists and philanthropists. And each subsequent year BISP was not only expanded to cover sectors/areas where assistance to the poor and deserving would allow for a graduation away from the programme but to achieve the ever rising objectives of the programme there was a consistent rise in annual budgeted allocation - a practice that continues to this day. The programme has not been immune from misuse by politicians, bureaucrats and the unscrupulous (reflected recently by the 2019 weaning out of over 800,000 ineligible from the programme) yet multilaterals have remained engaged since its launch in ensuring the evolution of the programme as per international standards.
Though the PTI administration refers to the programme as ‘Ehsaas’ yet its major component, i.e., cash disbursements to the poor mainly women and vulnerable, remains BISP. The Khan administration’s decision to raise Ehsaas allocation by a significantly higher percentage than during previous administrations as well as consolidate welfare support programmes and subsidies must be appreciated as it enables for more targeted subsidies. To achieve this objective, Prime Minister Khan established a subsidies cell headed by Dr Waqar Masood, a former finance secretary and current Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Revenue, who calculated total budgeted annual subsidies at a whopping 2 trillion rupees (4.5 percent of Gross Domestic Product) with an estimated saving of 500 billion rupees per annum if subsidies are consolidated: (i) 75 billion rupees from subsidies to industry; (ii) 50 billion rupees by settling the commodity debt; (iii) 200 billion rupees by consolidating the accounts of distribution companies; (iv) 18 billion rupees by implementing the electricity pricing agreement reached with Azad Jammu & Kashmir through Nepra; and (v) annual Ramazan packages/subsidies to contain a rise in prices of wheat and sugar, etc. The action plan that was formulated was to be implemented by December 2021.
One major point of departure initiated by the Khan administration has been to set up half way houses for the poor (Panahgahs) where shelter and food are available for the poor; the announcement that the Koi Bhuka Na Soye programme, envisaging food delivery to the doorstep of the needy on vans, is to be launched on a pilot basis is a logical extension of the Ehsaas programme.
Imran Khan has repeatedly stated that Pakistanis’ donations (to charity) are one of the highest in the world, based on his own experience in collecting donations for Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital as well as in setting up NUML University. There is also overwhelming evidence of free food available daily in places of worship, shrines and localities, as well as a very positive response from the public in the event of an illness in a household. It is to the credit of the Prime Minister that he has formed a bridge between the government Panahgahs and the private sector food donations.
The Prime Minister has wisely selected a qualified and committed person, Dr Sania Nishtar, to take his vision of providing assistance to all who need it forward. Lack of resources as well as administrative constraints are impediments; however, it is a step in the right direction. One would hope that he just as carefully selects his other team members to bring his other visions/dreams to their logical conclusion.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021