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Covid-19 pandemic

 Combatting & redefining future   

Dr. Ikramul Haq

The worldwide Covid-19 crisis has jolted the entire humanity, exposed vulnerabilities of even those states considered as economically and politically so “powerful” so as to determine the course of history. Being clueless how to curtail/overcome the outbreak, the mighty states are not only going to be badly hit due to negative growth this year, projected by many, notably by the World Bank, but also expecting an altogether different world in the post-Covid-19 era, the features of which are increased poverty and uncertainty. For countries like Pakistan, the challenges even before Covid-19 pandemic were numerous due to sluggish economy and political instability. Now, the leadership, civil and military, lacks any policy framework to convert challenges into opportunities, undertake long-delayed, much-need fundamental structural reforms to dismantle all elitist structures and provide a comprehensive social protection system making us a truly egalitarian and progressive society.

Prime Minister, Imran Khan, since assumption of power in October 2018, has been repeatedly asserting uplifting of the poor, making Pakistan a welfare state and turning 2020 into a year of prosperity. Now, after Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown, his dream is shattered. Priority in the existing circumstances is to ensure food for the daily wage earners’ family, destitute, the less-privileged and the downtrodden. On March 24, 2020, he announced Rs. 1.2 trillion relief package that included “Rs.150 billion for providing Rs. 3,000 monthly help to daily wagers by the federal government with provinces to expand coverage of the programme to maximum beneficiaries”. It was conveyed by the Special Assistant to Prime Minister, Dr Sania Nishtar that 10 million families will be provided with cash assistance—each family to get Rs.12,000 over a period of four months. Half of them will be new additions to Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), now renamed as Ehsaas. The Government committed additional allocation of Rs.50 billion for Utility Stores Corporation “ensuring provision of essential food items at affordable prices”. As emergent measures, these were appreciated by all, except a few who said that cash amount is too little to feed a 6-member family—their monthly ration expense alone is Rs. 10,000. Hopefully, provincial will make up the deficiency.  

On April 1, 2020, Prime Minister launched the ‘Ehsaas Emergency Cash initiative’ under which Rs.144 billion allocated to help 12 million deserving families (72 million individuals) across the country—for each family Rs. 12,000 in 4 months.

Dr. Sania said that through “an aggressive communication campaign through mobile Short Message Service (SMS), citizens can check eligibility by sending an SMS on 8171. If they are not identified in the database, they will be directed to contact their respective district administration for collection of money, she added. For ensuring transparency, she said that deserving persons could only collect cash from Points of Sale (POS) of biometrically enabled branchless banking operations and biometrically enabled ATMs and that all cash transfers would be made after biometric verification of each beneficiary through National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA).

Dr. Sania said that Ehsaas Ration Platform was also launched “to connect people wanting to donate food ration to those in need”. “At least thirty five thousand deserving families and over six hundred donors have so far got themselves registered on the online platform”, she added. She clarified that the deserving families can simultaneously benefit from both the programmes.

It is explained in a handout out by Ehsaas that this programme “has been planned in the context of the economic hardship being experienced by the vulnerable due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis”. “The currently stalled economic activity affects daily wage earners and piece-rate workers, the most”, it adds. The existing beneficiaries [currently enrolled 4.5 million Kafaalat families] to get extra cash assistance of Rs. 1,000 per month, in addition to the regular cash transfer of Rs. 2,000 per month. They will get a lump sum of Rs. 12,000 covering 4 months. It means just Rs. 3,000 per month per family. It is claimed that 7.5 million new beneficiaries will be given a lump sum of Rs. 12,000 as well—this is one-time assistance. The assistance, it is clearly mentioned in the handout, meant “to help them buy rations so that they don’t go hungry”.

As clear from above, the federal scheme is just offering peanuts that cannot be justified when billions are lying unpaid under the Income Support Levy, 2013 by the rich and mighty that include majority of the legislators as explained in detail in ‘A tax for the poor that the rich never paid’, Daily Times, October 21, 2018 and same is the case with Workers’ Welfare Fund that is due from the rich industrial units/employers as discussed in ‘Retrieving the billions for the marginalised’, Daily Times, Mach 11, 2019. The provincial schemes are also inadequate.

The present crisis offers an opportunity that we should not only strengthen our national health system to cope with the Coronavirus outbreak in the short term but also dissociate the quality of health care from money; as well as tackle the wealth inequality by eliminating the capture of  Public Financial Management  by the sectional interests, ensure the fundamental right of life as explained by Supreme Court in Ms. Shehla Zia v. WAPDA PLD 1994 SC 693, introduce comprehensive universal pension/social protection using the fiscal space created by the suspension of domestic/international debt and aid from foreign donors.

It is time that we redefine our future through targets of Ehsaas: safety net for at least 10 million families, livelihood opportunities for 3.8 million individuals, financial access to healthcare for 10 million families, scholarships and education incentives for 5 million students (50% girls), financial and digital inclusion for 7 million individuals (90% women), enabling environment for poverty reduction and equality promoting multi-sectoral partnerships and innovations.

We must legally bind employers under federal and provincial jurisdiction in the light of Constitution (Eighteenth Amendment) Act, 2010 to provide social security to their employees—piece rate or on contract. This would cover 75 % of the labour force. Simultaneously, all random daily wagers, self-employed, small shopkeepers, and casual/seasonal labour should be registered to get in hard times food stamps and/or cash. State must provide health insurance and pension to entire population, in lieu of a small payment, collected with electricity bill etc.

The Government of PTI has a golden chance to implement above agenda and abandon once for all charity-model like Corona Relief Fund. This model will always keep the poor hooked on alms and never allow them economic independence. The privileged classes want to use them merely as vote banks, poor subjects and nothing else! The entire nation in these difficult times can be mobilised to work/help for empowerment of the downtrodden, which is not possible until we dismantle elitist structure of economy that is the main impediment in implementing Article 3 of the Constitution: “The State shall ensure the elimination of all forms of exploitation and the gradual fulfilment of the fundamental principle, from each according to his ability to each according to his work”. It isa path to prosperity and equality for all citizens guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution.

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The writer, Advocate Supreme Court, is Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).

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