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Prime Minister Imran Khan is undoubtedly deeply committed to ensuring that the poor and the vulnerable are provided state support (our tax rupees). Disturbingly, he does not reportedly question the pace of implementation with respect to his policy statement (uploaded on the internet) and sees little, if any, linkage between his administration's ongoing policies (fiscal and monetary) and rising inflation as well as the rising number of unemployed who now require state support.

The three most praiseworthy components of the Ehsaas programme, though difficult to implement, as noted in the Prime Minister's policy statement remain unmet. First, constitutional amendment envisaging moving article 38(d) of the constitution from the principles of policy section into fundamental rights section which would make provision of food, clothing, housing, education and medical relief to those who cannot afford it a state responsibility. Any amendment to the constitution would require a bi-partisan consensus in parliament and it is unclear whether the recent visible cooperation with the opposition on legislation starting from the passage of the Army Amendment Act would extend to this particular amendment; additionally Prime Minister Imran Khan's rare attendance in parliament, like his predecessors (other than Gilani) as well as his failure to follow constitutional stipulations, including holding a Council of Common Interest meeting every three months, makes one wonder if an amendment alone would make a difference.

Second, address current fragmentation by merging Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) with Baitul Mal, Zakaat, Poverty Alleviation Fund, Trust for Voluntary organizations, Center for Social Entrepreneurship, the SUN network and secretariats of Poverty Alleviation Coordination Council and planned labour expert group. There is no evidence of any merger or a time line when this would be achieved, leave alone if it's achievable at all from a legal perspective. It is also unclear what progress if any has been achieved in setting up a planned labour expert group which ideally should not be in the domain of social protection.

And finally, the most relevant component of any social protection programme is the projected spending/allocations. The statement maintains that social protection spending will receive an additional allocation of 80 billion rupees in the ongoing year with a further increase in next year's budget and a total two year incremental increase of 120 billion rupees at which level social protection spending will be 1 percent of GDP with federal and provincial contribution. The higher allocation is not too ambitious from the perspective of the country's rising poverty and unemployment levels, the ambitious expanding Ehsaas programme and a total budget of 7 trillion rupees; additionally given that pensions alone are budgeted to rise by around 80 billion rupees in the current year's budget the rise of the same amount for the poor and vulnerable appears not too serious a commitment to social protection.

Be that as it may, the 2019-20 budget documents do not highlight social sector allocations including on BISP (referred to as Ehsaas Kifalat programme) but a recent Business Recorder interview with Dr Sania Nishtar, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister and Chairperson of BISP, revealed BISP has been allocated 120 billion rupees in 2019-20 budget - an amount less by 4.7 billion rupees in comparison to what was budgeted in 2018-19 (with revised estimates giving the total amount disbursed at 118.66 billion rupees). The Khan administration has announced a raise from 5000 to 5500 rupees per beneficiary per quarter giving a total allocation per beneficiary for the year at 20,000 rupees. Unfortunately, the high rate of inflation prompted the Prime Minister to announce 6 billion rupees additional subsidies to Utility Stores Corporation (USC) however this amount, as per Dr Nishtar, was disbursed by the social protection ministry that she heads, at the direction of the Finance Division, prompting fears that in the event that food inflation rises even further than the current 24 percent, more of the social protection programme allocations maybe diverted for subsidies.

The number of BISP beneficiaries declined by 820,165 after the re-verification of the beneficiaries exercise, completed in December 2019, revealed they were not eligible to receive the funds, which would save BISP around 16.4 billion rupees. However the raise of 500 rupees per remaining beneficiaries per quarter (estimated at 3,479,935 assuming there have been no additions to the number of beneficiaries) implies an additional 19 billion rupees or a total of 76 billion rupees for the year. This leaves only 44 billion rupees for Waseela-i-Haq, Waseela-i-Rozgar, Waseela-i-Sehat, Waseela-i-Taleem (good programmes all) - an appallingly low amount raising the possibility of inadequate allocations to achieve the salutary objective of reducing the numbers below the poverty line.

What one can unambiguously support is the Prime Minister's langar khanas, safe houses and soup kitchens in one, for the poor, the vulnerable and the homeless. Reports in the electronic media have shown the Prime Minister visiting these langar khanas as well as positive views expressed by the beneficiaries, including labourers; however, there is no independent assessment of exactly how many are currently operating, and who are the main beneficiaries (transient labour or the homeless, and the number of men/women/children). Official sources indicate more than 150 Ehsaas langar distributors provide meals to almost more than 80,000 to 90,000 people a day. Prime Minister Imran Khan has consistently stated that Pakistanis are the most generous people in the world in giving to charity, and pre-langar khanas' launch, free food in huge cauldrons was visibly being distributed in mazaars (shrines) as well as in designated areas of several cities. In this context his decision to set up safe houses was a good one as charities have taken over providing food for those in the langar khanas.

However, it is recommended that Imran Khan re-launches one extremely good policy that was successfully implemented by Chaudhry Pervez Elahi in 2004 when he was Chief Minister Punjab. A rehabilitation and training programme for beggar and disabled children was established under Dr Faiza Asghar, Advisor to the then Chief Minister. A dedicated phone line, open to the general public, to refer a child beggar at a specific location was set up; officials would be promptly dispatched to bring the child to the centre who would be given the option to leave with his parents/guardians if he so desired, though the option was available only once, or else to stay in the centre to be trained/educated. Sadly, Shahbaz Sharif disbanded the programme simply because it was the brainchild of his nemesis, a rather immature approach to a good strategy. One hopes that Imran Khan re-launches this programme.

To conclude, the Ehsaas programme is a well thought-out desirable programme (more detailed than Ahsan Iqbal's Vision 2025 though the objectives are hauntingly similar) with implementation weaknesses mainly sourced to lack of funding as well as the continuing tendency of the administration to minimize previous administrations' social protection programmes. That needs to change because such an approach minimizes valuable lessons learned.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020


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