'Some in PM cabinet want to use Ehsaas for votes' says Pakistan poverty alleviation chief

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Dr. Sania Nishtar who heads Pakistan's Ehsaas program, in her office in Islamabad on Jan. 24, 2020. (AN photo by Nazar ul Islam and Benazir Shah)
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External view of the headquarters of the Benazir Income Support Program in Islamabad on Jan. 24, 2020. (AN photo by Nazar ul Islam and Benazir Shah)
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Updated 26 January 2020

'Some in PM cabinet want to use Ehsaas for votes' says Pakistan poverty alleviation chief

  • Dr. Sania Nishtar says there are some in PM cabinet who want to use program for political gain
  • National survey concluded 38.4 percent of Pakistanis live in multidimensional poverty

ISLAMABAD: In November, during a huddle of parliamentarians from the ruling party, Pakistani Tehreek-e-Isaaf (PTI), a lawmaker launched an unexpected attack on the government’s flagship poverty reduction program.
He took aim directly at the soft-spoken Dr. Sania Nishtar, special assistant to Prime Minister Imran Khan on social protection and poverty alleviation, accusing her of rolling out initiatives benefiting the voters of his political opponents, Dr. Nishtar recalls, instead of his own. A few other voices chimed in.
There is “a small minority” within the cabinet, the special assistant conceded to Arab News this week, which is used to the old way of doing things-- politicizing social protection programs.
“Programs like these were in the past used for political purposes, for creating a vote bank,” she said, seated in her office in the capital, Islamabad. 
“The prime minister is very clear that our program will run apolitically. And while I am here, it cannot be otherwise,” she said.
The South Asian country of 208 million people, has a huge poverty problem. According to its last national survey conducted in 2015-16, 38.4 percent of Pakistan’s population lives in multidimensional poverty. This means not only do they have low incomes, they do not have access to health, electricity, clean water and education, among other things. A majority of those who live in extreme poverty are in the country’s largest (area-wise) province, Balochistan, in southwestern Pakistan.
An updated poverty survey is expected to be completed this year.
In March last year, Pakistan’s newly elected government launched its largest and most ambitious poverty alleviation plan, the Ehsaas program. Ehsaas is an umbrella platform with over 134 pro-poor policy initiatives, aimed at widows, the homeless, orphans, laborers, students, farmers and the elderly.
It was a tough task. The doctor knew she was staking her legacy on a plan which would face resistance from political quarters. When the prime minister first approached her to join his cabinet, she said she hesitated, but agreed once she was promised complete freedom without political interference, to carry out her work.
“Prime Minister Imran Khan came across to me as someone who was genuinely interested in the problems of the poor. I am, to this day, never stopped from doing what is right. And if I did not have the prime minister’s complete support, I would not be sitting here today,” she said.
Since March, one after another, an initiative is rolled out every month in much-publicized ceremonies personally attended by Khan. Some ongoing projects include soup kitchens and shelter homes for the homeless and the Kifalat program, through which women, who do not have any other source of income, receive a small monthly stipend of Rs. 2,000 ($13).
Dr. Nishtar is powering through, while the pushback has only intensified.
Last month, the doctor announced the removal of over 800,000 people from the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP), a cash transfer plan launched in 2008 for women who do not have any source of income. The BISP now falls under Ehsaas.
The names excluded, Dr. Nishtar told reporters, were “undeserving” of the income support. 
Upward of 140,000 of the claimants were government employees against whom disciplinary action would be taken, she said. Others listed on the BISP had homes and cars registered under their names while some had made foreign visits in the last few years.
Soon after, leader of major opposition party Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, called the exclusion of names an “economic attack on poor women.”
Recently, a member of the national assembly from the ruling party walked into the doctor’s office to complain about a woman employed at his home who was removed from the BISP only because she traveled to perform Umra. 
“I asked him, does the woman live with you? He said yes. Do you provide her food and pay her medical bills? He said yes. I then asked him, don’t you think another woman who has nothing is more eligible for the program?” Dr. Nishtar said and added: “The BISP is for the poorest of the poor.”
Combined, the BISP and Khifalat aim to support seven million women in Pakistan. Ayesha Bano, who lives in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, said she had been on the BISP for over a decade.
“Without it my household would be difficult to run,” she told Arab News.
Previously, parliamentarians were given thousands of BISP forms each, to fill out on behalf of women they thought were deserving. These forms were often misused. But that has now changed. The doctor and her team, through non-governmental organizations and analytical data, is identifying those who deserve the Rs. 5,000 quarterly as a stipend. Last week, Dr. Nishtar announced that quarterly figure would be increased to Rs. 6000 ($40).
She said that until now, she had only zeroed in on the federal and provincial governments, while other state departments still remained to be examined, to weed out officials exploiting the BISP.
“They [officials] are not giving me data because they know what I intend to do,” she said.
Political and bureaucratic challenges aside, there is one other problem – money. Social welfare programs like Ehsaas are expensive and require government revenue in order to bankroll them. In the last budget, the government allocated Rs. 80 billion to the initiative. This figure could be increased to Rs. 120 billion this year.
“Elaborate social welfare systems require the governments to collect a large proportion of their GDP’s in taxes,” explains Shahrukh Wani, a prominent Pakistani economist.
“Pakistan doesn’t collect enough (tax) to provide a basic level of service delivery, let alone enough under which it can provide comprehensive social protections. It is unlikely any such program can work in the absence of a large and extensive tax infrastructure.”
Dr. Nishtar agrees that Pakistanis out of the tax net have a connection with how the program is funded and its effectiveness.
“Social protection programs are largely funded through revenue,” she said. “The predictability of the budget has to be there.”


PM announces $140 million relief package for 14 million poor Pakistani families

Updated 5 min 59 sec ago

PM announces $140 million relief package for 14 million poor Pakistani families

  • Sharif made the announcement a day after his government rolled back on fuel subsidies
  • A Rs30 ($0.15) hike in petroleum prices was announced Thursday to unlock IMF loan funds

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on Friday announced a monthly relief package of Rs28 billion ($140 million) for 14 million families to protect them from the impact of recently hiked petroleum prices.

Sharif made the announcement in a late-night televised address to the nation — his first since he became PM last month — a day after his government rolled back fuel subsidies and made a record Rs30 ($0.15) hike in petroleum prices to unlock around $1 billion in loan funding from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Pakistan has been struggling with a worsening balance-of-payment crisis in the face of declining foreign exchange reserves, with inflation expected to reach 14.3 percent in May and the recent fuel price hike likely to impact economic indicators in the month of June.

Sharif said the difficult decision of increasing petroleum prices was taken in line with an agreement reached by the previous government of PM Imran Khan with the International Monetary Fund.

“The previous government had given subsidy on petroleum products for political gains despite the fact that it was not financially feasible,” he said. “But we sacrificed our political interest over national interest as the decision [to hike fuel prices] was inevitable to save the country from default.”

“When we took over, every department was on the verge of destruction,” Sharif added, saying the relief package would provide Rs2,000 per month to poor families already registered with the government under existing poverty reduction schemes.

Sharif said those families could buy 10 kilogram of flour for Rs400 from government-run utility stores, adding that the relief package would be incorporated in the upcoming budget.

Speaking on foreign policy, Sharif reiterated Pakistan’s stance on talks with India, saying the onus of sustainable development in South Asia was on New Delhi.

“It is the responsibility of India to roll back unilateral and illegal steps taken on Aug 5, 2019 to move toward resolution of all disputes including Jammu and Kashmir through meaningful dialogue,” he said, referring on India stripping Kashmir of its autonomous status.

Concluding his speech, the PM proposed a “charter of economy“:

“I am starting a consultative process with all political parties for a consensus over this charter so that no government or ruler could play havoc with the national economy for personal gains,” Sharif said.


Pakistan to ban rallies spreading 'chaos and unrest' from entering federal capital 

Updated 57 min 29 sec ago

Pakistan to ban rallies spreading 'chaos and unrest' from entering federal capital 

  • On Wednesday, thousands of ex-PM Khan supporters marched on Islamabad, clashing with police
  • The former premier left the capital after giving a six-day ultimatum to the government for fresh polls

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan government has decided to impose a ban on rallies in the federal capital, the country's interior ministry said on Friday, saying protests aimed at spreading "chaos and unrest" would not be allowed in Islamabad.

The decision comes two days after former Prime Minister Imran Khan led a long march to the capital to demand fresh elections. The government had blocked major roads and highways to the capital, leading to a long day of drama that saw clashes between police and marchers in major cities across the country.

Khan last month became the first Pakistani prime minister to be removed from power through a no-confidence vote in parliament. He has blamed his ouster on a "foreign conspiracy" and since embarked on a campaign to force the new government to announce snap polls.

"Decision taken to impose permanent ban on the entry of rallies and processions in the capital Islamabad aimed at spreading chaos and unrest," the interior ministry said in a statement after a policy meeting chaired by Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah. 

"The Islamabad administration has been directed to take further effective measures to obstruct the way of disruptive marches."

The interior ministry said the state had decided to adopt a "zero-tolerance" policy against violent demonstrators. 

Sanaullah said the government would not allow "miscreants" and "hooligans" to take the country hostage.

"The state is responsible for the security of life and property of citizens," he was quoted as saying in the statement. “State institutions must ensure law and order at all cost.”

Khan, who left Islamabad on Thursday morning after issuing a six-day ultimatum to the government to announce fresh elections, on Friday said he had called off Wednesday's anti-government protest fearing violence and bloodshed.


Novel about Indian woman who confronts partition trauma in Pakistan wins Booker Prize

Updated 12 min 22 sec ago

Novel about Indian woman who confronts partition trauma in Pakistan wins Booker Prize

  • 'Tomb of Sand' is a family saga set in the shadow of the partition of the Indian Subcontinent in 1947
  • Novel is the first in an Indian language to win the prize and first in Hindi to even secure a nomination

NEW DELHI: India’s literary world on Friday celebrated the long-awaited recognition of the International Booker Prize for Geetanjali Shree’s “Tomb of Sand,” the first novel written in an Indian language to win the prestigious award.

“Tomb of Sand” (originally “Ret Samadhi”) is a family saga set in the shadow of the partition of the Indian Subcontinent in 1947. The split of British India into two independent states — India and Pakistan — triggered one of the biggest migrations in history, forcing about 15 million people to swap countries in a political upheaval that cost more than a million lives.

The novel follows an 80-year-old woman who, after the death of her husband, travels to Pakistan to confront the unresolved trauma of her teenage experiences of partition, and re-evaluates what it means to be a mother, daughter, and woman.

Written in 2018 and translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, the book won the International Booker Prize on Thursday evening, becoming the first novel originally written in an Indian language to do so, and the first in Hindi to secure a nomination.

The picture posted on May 15, 2022 shows author Geetanjali Shree posing with her book "Tomb of Sand." (@shreedaisy/Twitter)

In her acceptance speech in London, Shree said behind her was a “rich and flourishing literary tradition in Hindi, and in other South Asian languages.”

“World literature will be the richer for knowing some of the finest writers in these languages. The vocabulary of life will increase from such an interaction,” she said.

Writers in India welcomed Shree’s recognition with the same hope.

“It’s an absolutely wonderful achievement,” Arundhati Roy, one of India’s most renowned writers, told Arab News.

Namita Gokhale, director of the Jaipur Literature Festival, India’s largest literary event, said the award would bring a “long-needed understanding of Hindi literature, one of the great world literatures.”

“It will lead to more and more translation,” she added. “There are so many wonderful translations out there, but certainly many, many more need to be done because there is a wonderful writing happening at all levels of contemporary Hindi literature.”

 For Hindi novelist Bhagwandass Morwal, Shree’s win was a “matter of great pride.”

“After the Nobel Prize, Booker is the most recognized award for literature,” he said. “This is one Booker prize, this is the beginning. In the future we will see more.” 

The International Booker Prize is awarded every year for a book that is translated into English and published in the United Kingdom or Ireland.

“Tomb of Sand” competed with five other shortlisted titles, including “The Books of Jacob” by Olga Tokarczuk, the Nobel Prize-winning Polish novelist, and “Heaven” by Mieko Kawakami, the Japanese author best known for “Breasts and Eggs.”


OIC expresses ‘deep concern’ over life imprisonment for Kashmiri leader Yasin Malik

Updated 27 May 2022

OIC expresses ‘deep concern’ over life imprisonment for Kashmiri leader Yasin Malik

  • An Indian court on Wednesday sentenced Yasin Malik in a ‘terror’ funding case 
  • Pakistan PM condemned the verdict, calling it ‘a black day for Indian democracy’

ISLAMABAD: The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has expressed its “deep concern” over the pronouncement of life sentence for prominent Kashmiri leader Yasin Malik, it said on Friday, who had been leading a struggle for the freedom of Indian-controlled Kashmir for decades. 

Malik, 56, is the head of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), one of the first armed separatist groups in the Indian-controlled region, that supported an independent and united Kashmir. The group gave up armed rebellion in 1994. 

India’s National Investigation Agency arrested Malik in April 2019. The agency demanded death penalty for him on charges of receiving funds from Pakistan to “carry out terrorist activities and stone-pelting during the Kashmir unrest,” but a New Delhi court on Wednesday sentenced him to life in prison. 

“The General Secretariat of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) expresses it deep concern over the pronouncement of life sentence for one of the most prominent Kashmiri leaders, Mr. Yasin Malik, who has been leading a peaceful freedom struggle for many decades,” the OIC said on Twitter. 

“Reiterating its solidarity with the people of Jammu and Kashmir, the OIC General Secretariat urges the international community to ensure that the legitimate struggle of the Kashmiris for the realization of their rights must not be equated with terrorism.” 

Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan since their independence from British rule in 1947. Both countries claim the region in its entirety and have fought two of their three wars over the disputed territory. 

The OIC General Secretariat called on the Indian government to “release all Kashmiri leaders unfairly incarcerated, halt forthwith the gross and systematic persecution of Kashmiris in the Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK).” 

It asked New Delhi to respect the right of the Kashmiri people to determine their own future through a “free and impartial plebiscite,” as enshrined in the relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions. 

On Wednesday, Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif condemned the verdict, calling it “a black day for Indian democracy & its justice system.” 

“India can imprison Yasin Malik physically but it can never imprison idea of freedom he symbolizes,” he tweeted.


Pakistan’s currency, stocks recover some losses after government jacks up fuel prices

Updated 27 May 2022

Pakistan’s currency, stocks recover some losses after government jacks up fuel prices

  • Government’s decision to make highest-ever fuel price hike will unlock around $1 billion IMF funding
  • Experts forecast the hike in petroleum prices will increase inflation to 15.8 percent in the month of June

KARACHI: Bulls at Pakistan’s currency and stock markets on Friday celebrated the weekend trading session with considerable gains, traders and analysts said, after the government increased fuel prices as prior action for the revival of $6 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) program. 

The rupee recovered 1.13 percent of its value as the United States (US) dollar closed at Rs199.76. On Thursday, the greenback hit another all-time high of Rs202.01, with the Pakistani currency losing its value by over Rs20 since April 16. 

The equity market closed in the green zone as well, with the benchmark KSE100 index reaching 42,861-point level by gaining 319 points on the back of the fuel price hike, which is expected to unlock IMF funding. 

“Stocks closed bullish amid higher trades as investors weigh petroleum price hike by the government, abolishing energy subsidies and paving way for the IMF release of $900 million under the EFF (Extended Fund Facility),” Ahsan Mehanti, chief executive officer (CEO) of the Karachi-based Arif Habib Corporation business conglomerate, told Arab News. 

“The 7th review Doha talks setting up targets for FY23 and discussions over federal budget due next month and surging global equities played a catalyst role in the bullish close.” 

Pakistan’s reluctant new government finally increased the petroleum prices by over 20 percent, or Rs30 ($0.15) per liter, after a meeting with IMF officials in Doha, in which the global lender emphasized the importance rolling back energy subsidies announced by former premier Imran Khan earlier this year. 

Financial experts said the impact of the fuel price hike would reflect on the inflation numbers next month. Inflation in the country is expected to rise to 15.8 percent from 13.4 percent in April and an expected 14.3 percent in May, they said. 

“For every Rs10 per liter change in petroleum prices, the impact on CPI (Consumer Price Index) is expected to be around 24 basis points. So, for the current Rs30 per liter increase, the impact would be around 72 bps (0.72 percent),” said Tahir Abbas, head of research at the Arif Habib Limited brokerage firm. 

“Also, this is the direct impact on the CPI, indirect impact would also be there with some lag. It would be visible in June 2022 and we expect inflation would increase to 15.8 percent in June 2022.” 

Pakistan’s energy subsidies, compared to the country’s GDP, were one of the highest in the region. The government was estimated to give around $2 billion in petroleum and electricity subsidies from April till June. 

“Today’s subsidy is the future’s inflation,” Khurram Schehzad, CEO of the Alpha Beta Core financial advisory firm, said. “We, as a nation, need to understand this very basic yet very important underlying relation that leads to structural problems disrupting the country’s finances eternally.” 

Schehzad said inflation varied from person to person according to their income levels. “Inflation is always relative, and not the same for all... inflation for people earning Rs100,000 ($502) per month would be entirely different from ones earning Rs20,000 ($100) per month, and those earning nothing at all,” he said. 

The removal of fuel subsidies is also expected to have political consequences for the new coalition government, especially when the next general elections are expected within the next one-and-a-half year.