EDITORIAL: Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted on the Pakistan Day that the country is back on track by “bringing the powerful under the rule of law” besides setting up a welfare state with programme of Ehsaas as well as health cards. There is no doubt that the Khan administration has taken the initiative to strengthen the Ehsaas programme – by increasing allocation every year (as well as getting rid of more than 800,000 ineligible); however, severe resource constraints have made the allocation inadequate for two reasons. First, the growing number of unemployed as well as the vulnerable due to the continuous rise in food inflation has compromised the capacity of the monthly disbursement (2000 rupees) to cater to the food needs of a family of four. Wheat flour (atta) is being sold at over 1300 rupee per 20kg and with the rise in the price of cooking oil and vegetables the purchasing power of the amount disbursed is contracting with the passage of each month. And secondly, the government is blaming the “mafia” operating in manufacturing/wholesale/retail sectors for the continuous rise in the price of food items. However, the government’s narrative ignores the fact that: (i) previous administrations routinely grappled with the same mafia by carrying out raids and more successfully than at present. Granted that due to the pandemic, the role previously played by district administrations in checking prices of Sunday Bazaars has been compromised as such bazaars are no longer being held yet the government would be well advised to take appropriate measures to begin to deal with those it accuses of operating as mafias instead of merely naming and shaming them; and (ii) completely ignored by the government are the ongoing contractionary fiscal and monetary policies supported by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that are stifling growth, thereby raising unemployment and fuelling inflationary pressures. The Ministry of Finance has been supporting pro-inflationary policies, including a rise in indirect taxes, whose incidence on the poor is greater than on the rich, and an unsustainable budget deficit through ever-rising reliance on domestic and external borrowing.
On 20 August 2020, Prime Minister Khan announced that the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa would launch health cards envisaging “health insurance worth 1 million rupees per family per year will be given to entire KP population (60 lakh families) through their CNICs phase wise.” And 6.617 million residents of Swat, Buner, Dir Upper and Lower, Shangla, Malakand and Bajaur divisions will start receiving health cards regardless of their financial status from October 2020. On 8 December 2020, the Punjab Chief Minister tweeted that “in line with the vision of Prime Minister Imran Khan, we have decided to provide health insurance of Rs 720,000 to every family in Punjab.” The programme was scheduled to start from January 2021 with Chief Minister Usman Buzdar adding that by end 2021 “Universal Health Coverage” initiative will be launched in all districts of Punjab with work beginning in two districts in January. AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan are included in the programme. To date, the KPK Sehat Sahulat website boasts of issuance of the card to 7.6 million families enrolled with total hospital visits of 1.6 million. The cost of the card in any of the provinces where it has been launched is not known and as less than half a year has gone by since its launch it is unclear as to whether the finances of the province(s) would be sufficient to meet the programme’s requirements.
There is no doubt that the Prime Minister’s welfare initiatives with respect to Panahgahs and ensuring that no one goes to sleep hungry are laudable and can be fully supported though one would hope that Panahgahs are more focused on battered women/the old/street children (and not only labour); however, at the same time it is critical for the Prime Minister to turn his attention towards economic policies that are pushing the unemployed into the ranks of the indigent at a faster pace than the rise in the allocation for Ehsaas programme.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021