PRIME Minister Imran Khan has launched the “Ehsas” an ambitious social, safety poverty alleviation programme. The most widely held and understood definition of poverty in economic terms — earning less amount in a day sufficient to meet their basic needs. Countries typically define national poverty lines to measure the magnitude of poverty. But the World Bank goes beyond the amount of money a person or family earns to expand the definition of poverty: “Poverty is hunger. Poverty is lack of shelter. Poverty is being sick and not being able to see a doctor. Poverty is not having access to school and not knowing how to read. Poverty is not having a job, is fear for the future, living one day at a time. Poverty is losing a child to illness brought about by unclean water. Poverty is powerlessness, lack of representation and freedom.”
This poverty definition encompasses living conditions, an inability to meet basic needs because food, potable water, proper sanitation, education, healthcare and other social services are inaccessible. EHSAS (compassion) covers the five basic things – food, shelter, clothing, education and taking care of their health. PM announced to provide the constitutional coverage by amending in the Article 38(D) of the Constitution and make it a “fundamental right” so the State can guarantee these five things to the people of Pakistan. This programme covers Tahafuz (protection) of 5.7 million women. Will it serve as a catalyst to laying the foundation of “Riyasat-e-Madina” or a democratic society where, as Party Manifesto claims: “Every Pakistani feels empowered, has control over their own lives in a just and equitable environment.” Imran Khan has already taken a few initiative like shelters to people sleeping on roads, hens to poor families etc to demonstrate his commitment. Initially the Government is spending Rs 80 billion and further incrementally increase to bring it up to Rs 120 billion by 2020.
The historical reviews indicate that past governments initiated poverty alleviation programs with foreign assistance but unfortunately no substantial results could be attained. This happened even in cases where the program was ostensibly designed to help the small segment like small farmers and poor women. The reasons behind failure are inadequate finance, bad governance and lack of political will. As a consequence not only did tension increased between rich and poor, but also explosive conflicts began to occur in the urban areas along ethnic and regional lines. Thus development strategies of the past not only failed to alleviate poverty but contributed to a multi-faceted crisis that today threatens the very fabric of civil society.
The success chances of present poverty alleviation program is also bleak. This program has also financial, constitutional, legal, administrative and social threats. In the light of ongoing prolonged negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) it seem difficult to feedback financially this program. It is reported that IMF advised Pakistan to cut current spending on debt servicing, defence and subsidies on utilities to improve macro-economic fundamentals. With empty treasury there is hardly any scope to continue a meaningful socio-economic uplift programme. It is further evident from past experience that whenever the fiscal and current account deficits mount, the axe falls on development and public welfare programs.
PM directed to draft a parliamentary bill as per announcement to give the constitutional coverage and declare Pakistan a welfare state. It also seems difficult under present political situation as PTI has no sufficient numbers in Parliament to make constitutional amendment. Further some experts are of the view that after the 18th Amendment the education, employment, social welfare and agriculture fall under the purview of provincial governments therefore it would be difficult to make such an amendment. The last but not least the poor governance may be the cause of failure of this program. Unfortunately the PM’s team (political and administrative) selection is not appreciable. Dr Ishrat Hussin is given task to prepare program to improve the governance structure but after eight months nothing has appeared.
No doubt, poverty is increasing day by day and immediately effective steps are required to reduce it. Government should give emphasis to create job opportunities as best pathway out of poverty is well-paying job. To kick-start job growth, the PTI government should invest in job-creation strategies such as construction of 50 lack houses, rebuilding infrastructure to promote tourism; encourage manufacturing of import substitutes; and making other common-sense investment that create jobs and boost our national economy. In addition, the implementation of the existing laws of minimum wage, job hours, insurance and child labour laws is required strictly as it will help to save workers from exploitation. It will become source of creation more jobs or additional income for extra time ultimately contribute to improve the living of a few families. The step announced to provide credit facilities to start business may be one of effective but need to be implemented impartially. Hopefully the government will give priority to generating job activities by breaking the vicious circle of underdevelopment and poverty. Employment is a major instrument to eliminate poverty. There is nothing inevitable about poverty. We just need to build the political will to enact the policies and develop good governance mechanism that will increase the economic security, expand opportunities and grow poor people.
—The writer is ex-Chief, Planning Commission of Pakistan.