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Imran Khan as a private citizen has an exemplary record in critical interventions in pro-poor projects in deficient social sectors through mobilizing public support (inside and outside the country) - in the health sector through the establishment of Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospitals, and in the education sector with the establishment of Namal University in Mianwali District Punjab.

As Prime Minister he relied on his economic team to take informed macro-economic decisions till the onset of the pandemic in March/April 2021, but has been hands-on since he took oath as the country's prime minister in August 2019 with respect to his administration's pro-poor measures.

Imran Khan's heart is in the right place, so maintain his supporters and critics, and point to his commitment to the uplift of the poor and the vulnerable through considerable enhancement of cash disbursements to the poor (Benazir Income Support Programme) as well as setting up langar khanas/no one will sleep hungry vans and expansion of the Sehat Sahulat Card (under the health ministry and provinces).

More recently, his third finance minister Shaukat Tarin has identified a number of measures to improve the output of the poor/subsistence level farmers through targeted subsidies and interest free loans with the objective of breaking the generational nexus between the aarthis and the poor farmers and the former's control over the food supply chain targeted to reduce food inflation. If successfully implemented this would change the farm sector for the better for all times to come.

The World Bank while reviewing social protection interventions during the period 20 March 2020 to 14 May 2021 listed the Ehsaas Emergency Cash disbursement in fourth place (after Mongolia, Zimbabwe and Bolivia) and third place in terms of the number of people covered - a no mean achievement prompting Prime Minister to tweet "congratulations to Sania and Ehsaas team for achieving this milestone and well deserved international recognition."

Nishtar must be credited with exemplary administration of BISP and Ehsaas Programme with frequent upgrade of the National Socio Economic Registry (NSER) that identifies the ineligible and those graduating out of the programme. Sadly, poverty levels have also risen during this period - from 31.3 percent in 2018 to 40 percent by end 2020 or an increase from 69 million to 87 million people as per the Borgen project, a nonprofit organization based in the US.

The credit for a steep rise in allocations for pro-poor initiatives, in spite of the very limited fiscal space, rests with the Prime Minister. In 2018-19 social protection was budgeted at 120 billion rupees which was upped to 190 billion rupees in 2019-20 (revised estimates at 245 billion rupees after the onslaught of the pandemic); 246 billion rupees has been budgeted for BISP in 2021-22 against 194.9 billion rupees disbursed last year as per 2021-22 budget documents and 252.4 billion rupees has been budgeted for social protection (not elsewhere classified).

Inflation at 9 percent last year, with food inflation consistently in double digits, and the limited fiscal space remain serious impediments to reducing poverty levels in the country. To overcome these impediments would require a more holistic approach that takes monetary and fiscal policy measures into consideration.

There is a growing perception that in spite of public appreciation for Sheikh's performance Prime Minister Khan dismissed him for lack of empathy with the people of this country given his agreement to implement upfront extremely harsh International Monetary Fund (IMF) conditions. This claim is strengthened by the obvious fact that pre-pandemic (May 2019 to late March 2020) the IMF projected a low 1.5 percent growth, with inflation at around 13 percent premised on monetary and fiscal tightening agreed and implemented by the then economic team leaders; post-pandemic there has been a visible easing of these extremely harsh conditions - easing that remains in force since April 2020, including extension of the amnesty scheme to the construction sector, with the Fund maintaining in each subsequent document uploaded on its website that these measures must be temporary and the reforms/policies agreed in 2019 be implemented.

The Fund's sixth review remained inconclusive leading to the conclusion that Shaukat Tarin has to demonstrate that his growth and inclusive growth policies have actually borne fruit - growth to be achieved through raising Public Sector Development Programme to 900 billion rupees, continuing fiscal and monetary incentives to industry and export sector and inclusive growth to be achieved through Ehsaas Programme, Sehat Sahulat Card, subsidies and interest free loans to poor/subsistence farmers.

Three possible external spanners could derail the efficacy of these policies: (i) the failure to convince the IMF in September 2021 that the alternate policy measures designed to raise revenue and reduce expenditure are succeeding which in turn would reduce Pakistan's rating and raise the cost of borrowing from external sources; (ii) friendly countries may withdraw their support, a pre-condition for the Fund programme; and (iii) geopolitical considerations may compromise Pakistan's growth momentum which, in turn, would impact negatively on all facets of the 2021-22 budget.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

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