The eagerly awaited poverty alleviation programme of the PTI government has been launched. The Rs 80 billion “Ehsas” project is aimed at helping the downtrodden and vulnerable segments of society, including the poor, orphans, widows, homeless, disabled, undernourished, jobless, etc.
Poverty is a serious issue in Pakistan but both academic circles and governments have turned a blind eye towards it. For example, the Pakistan Peoples Party government didn’t release poverty statistics for years when it was in power. Similarly, the PML-N did not release poverty rates for its tenure. The poverty rate announced in 2016 by then Minister of Planning and Development Ahsan Iqbal was for the year 2013, when the PML-N was voted to power. Clearly, political parties are uncomfortable talking about poverty.
There is a difference of opinion among experts about the methodology to estimate the rate of poverty. There is no single and widely accepted poverty rate in Pakistan. Each academic study on poverty estimation gives its own poverty rate that is different from others. In some cases, there are significant differences between the calculated poverty rates. According to the latest available official statistics, almost 30% of Pakistanis were living below poverty line of Rs3,030 per adult per month in 2013. The poverty line used by the government is absurd. How can we consider an adult as not poor who earns Rs3,030 per month? The international poverty line is $2 per day. As per this poverty line, 60% of Pakistanis are poor. Now another type of poverty rate, called multidimensional poverty rate, is also being calculated which relies on non-income indicators.
Explaining the salient features of the PTI’s anti-poverty programme, PM Imran Khan said that the government would allocate an additional amount of Rs 80 billion for the country’s social protection spending in backward areas from the current year, which would be raised to Rs 120 billion in 2021. According to him, since 25% to 40% of people in Pakistan are suffering from poverty, the government wanted targeted subsidies. To achieve the objective, the government will conduct a new survey of poverty to be completed by December this year.
A major decision announced in this regard is to end the present confusion and establish a new Ministry of Social Protection/Poverty Alleviation to address the current fragmentation of various poverty alleviation programmes. Various institutions, likes the BISP, PBM, Zakat, PPAF and others, would work under the proposed ministry, which would develop a one-window operation for social protection of the poor and to facilitate citizens. For the purpose, the government would introduce a new Constitutional amendment to move Article 38(d) from the “Principles of Policy” section into the “Fundamental Rights” section. It is a welcome initiative and should receive the support of all political parties.
It is a good idea that the programme would not just give money to the poor, but also link it with health, and nutrition-related assistance, which would help address stunting of children. The government will also launch a new programme “Kafalat” under the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP), which would have fives pillars, one of which is economic empowerment of women. About 6 million women would be given saving accounts under the “one woman one bank account plan”. Under Kifalat, the government would raise the current cash transfer of Rs5,000 to Rs5,500. Another scheme is a precision safety net, called “Tahafaz” to protect individuals from catastrophic risk–a transparent and trackable digital system of cash transfers through which the government would give legal aid, education grants and health assistance to those without Insaf card entitlement.
The government also plans to graduate BISP beneficiaries out of poverty for the most backward districts; a programme for asset transfers worth Rs5 billion in five districts has additionally been launched through Kifalat.Also, 500 BISP and Pakistan Baitul Mal (PBM) offices would be transformed into digital hubs where the government’s IT, technology and innovation resources would be pooled. The government’s digital resources, such as access to the labor information system, online curricula, and one- window social protection interface would be accessible and create opportunities for BISP families to graduate out of poverty. In Tahafaz, the government would provide assistance to poor widows, who have no source of income and no earning children. To help the most marginalized segments of society, partnership will be developed with organizations that support street children, seasonal migrants, victims of child and bonded labor and daily wage workers, who do not find work.
It is an ambitious project which the Prime Minister has described as a first step towards the creation of a welfare state. It will now be a state responsibility to provide food, clothing, housing, education and medical relief for the citizens, who could not earn a livelihood due to infirmity, sickness or unemployment. But this is easier said than done. Various programmes in the past could not achieve their stated aims because of bureaucratic sloth, inefficiency and corruption. Strict monitoring at the highest level in the PM House is the only way to ensure its success.