'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.”


Pakistan arrests key suspect in Lahore bombing that killed 3

Updated 25 min 38 sec ago

Pakistan arrests key suspect in Lahore bombing that killed 3

  • Security officials say the man behind Wednesday's attack was arrested at the airport as he was trying to leave the country
  • Pakistan's Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said earlier in the day the police were close to arresting those responsible for the car bombing

LAHORE: Pakistani security forces on Thursday arrested one of the alleged perpetrators of a car bombing the day before that killed three people and wounded 25 near the residence of a convicted militant leader linked to the Mumbai terrorist attacks, officials said.
The man behind Wednesday's attack in the eastern city of Lahore was arrested at the airport as he was trying to leave the country, said Suhail Ahmad, a security official familiar with the investigation. He identified the man as Pakistani national David Peter.
Ahmad refused to share further details, saying the government would issue a statement about a breakthrough in the case achieved by the Punjab Counter-Terrorism Department with the help of the country's intelligence agencies.
Hours earlier, Pakistan's Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said in a video message on Twitter that the Punjab police were close to arresting those responsible for the Lahore car bombing.
The powerful explosion in the Johar Town neighborhood was near the residence of anti-India militant leader Hafiz Saeed, designated a terrorist by the US Justice Department and has a $10 million bounty on his head.
Saeed is the founder of the outlawed Lashkar-e-Taiba group, which was blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people. He was unharmed in Wednesday's bombing, but the windows of his home were shattered.
Last year, Pakistan sentenced Saeed to 15 years in prison in a terror-financing case, but he was never charged in connection with the Mumbai attacks. He has been serving his term at home under a government order.
Saeed's Lashkar-e-Taiba was active for years mainly in Kashmir, which is split between Pakistan and India but claimed by both in its entirety. In the Indian-administered sector of Kashmir, rebels have been fighting against Indian rule since 1989. Most Muslim Kashmiris support the rebel goal that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule, or as an independent country.
Pakistan and India have a history of bitter relations and they have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir since gaining independence in 1947.


Experts divided over effectiveness of Pakistan’s new intelligence coordination committee

Updated 24 June 2021

Experts divided over effectiveness of Pakistan’s new intelligence coordination committee

  • Despite being notified earlier this year, there is little information on the composition, working and mandate of the body
  • Some analysts say it will be yet another "institutional layer" in the absence of a robust accountability mechanism

ISLAMABAD: The National Intelligence Coordination Committee (NICC) will help collate key information to counter the threat of religious militancy and terrorism, security experts said on Thursday, though some analysts also dismissed the new body as yet another institutional layer in the absence of an effective accountability mechanism.
Prime Minister Imran Khan on Wednesday presided over the inaugural session of the body at the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) headquarters in Islamabad.
“A comprehensive briefing followed by discussion on enhanced intelligence cooperation was held. [The] Prime Minister appreciated the ongoing efforts and expressed satisfaction over the performance of National Intelligence Coordination Committee,” the PM Office said in a statement after the meeting.
The event was also attended by Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, Information Minister Chaudhry Fawad Hussain, the heads of the services’ intelligence agencies, Intelligence Bureau and Federal Investigation Agency, according to the statement.
The government notified the platform on January 22, though little information has been disclosed to the public about its composition, working, funding and mandate.
The information ministry and the military did not reply to calls seeks comment for this piece.
Lieutenant General (r) Amjad Shoaib, a defense analyst, said the idea had been in the pipeline for the last many years, but failed to materialize due to differences within the spy agencies regarding its composition and leadership.
“The platform will help intelligence agencies pool information to develop a complete picture before forwarding it to the government and other relevant departments,” he told Arab News on Thursday.
Shoaib said various intelligence agencies were working separately in the past and were shy of sharing information with other agencies. “This gap in their working relationship led to intelligence breaches in some cases,” he said.
“The platform will help fight terrorism effectively, besides boosting the country’s overall defense and security,” he added.
Political analyst and columnist Mosharraf Zaidi called the committee a "good start" but said there was a long way to go to improve coordination.
“Coordinating functions for intelligence collection and analysis is a longstanding need in Pakistani national security equation,” he told Arab News. “But as long as intelligence is dominated by the military, the full potential of Pakistan’s national power capabilities will continue to be constrained by the legacy of civil-military divide in the country.”
Around two dozen intelligence agencies are working in Pakistan with their respective mandates, and civil-military intelligence coordination has mostly remained a hurdle in their operations.
Author and defence expert Ayesha Siddiqa said full details of the intelligence coordination body should be shared with the public for transparency in its operations since it would otherwise be “just another institutional layer” without any effectiveness.
“Civilians have not been a key stakeholder in Pakistan’s intelligence service as it has always been dominated by the military,” she told Arab News. “Only time will tell therefore regarding the new body’s efficacy.”
Siddiqa noted that only infrastructure was not required to enhance intelligence cooperation in Pakistan, and
the accountability of any institutional setup was also key.
“We have witnessed a number of incidents that resulted from intelligence breach,” she said, asking: “Have we ever had accountability of ... spy agencies?”


Local transporters' strike over tax hike raises fear of Pakistan-wide fuel shortages

Updated 24 June 2021

Local transporters' strike over tax hike raises fear of Pakistan-wide fuel shortages

  • Oil transporters are also protesting a proposed change in the loading system, saying it will help companies monopolize the business
  • The government has invited transporters of petroleum products for talks in Islamabad on Friday

KARACHI: Local transporters of petroleum products on Thursday announced an indefinite strike after a tax increase in the country’s budget, disrupting 80 percent of supplies from Pakistan’s port city of Karachi and generating fears of a nationwide shortage of petrol and diesel in the coming days.
“The government has increased the withholding tax from 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent which is not viable for our business,” Israr Ahmed Shinwari of the All Pakistan Oil Tankers Owners Association told Arab News.
“They are also changing the 40-year-old loading system that operated on the first-come-first-served basis,” he continued. “This will not only allow companies to monopolize the business but also deprive about 400 people of their jobs.”
Shinwari confirmed that oil supplies from Karachi had been suspended and more than 10,000 tankers were taken off the city's roads.
“The supplies in other parts of country are continuing as per routine,” he informed. “If our demands are not met, however, we will go on a nationwide strike and take more than 42,000 vehicles off the country’s roads.”
Abidullah Afridi, president of the All Pakistan Oil Tankers Contractors Association which originally gave the strike call, told Arab News that around 1,500 tankers were loaded in Karachi on a daily basis for the city and upcountry, adding that all of them had been parked by their owners to protest the government’s measures.
“We will not back off until our demands are met,” he maintained.
Shinwari confirmed the government had invited local transporters for talks in Islamabad on Friday.
If the strike continues in the coming days, it will create an acute fuel shortage in the country.
Petroleum dealers said on Thursday they had only received about 20 percent of supplies, though they added that their available stocks had so far prevented a crisis.
“We have received around 20 percent supplies through tankers which were loaded a day before and overnight,” Abdul Sami Khan, chairman of the Pakistan Petroleum Dealers Association, told Arab News.
“We have managed the situation by using our available stocks,” he continued. “We hope that a way out will soon be found or else we will have to shut down our petrol pumps.”
Meanwhile, officials of the Pakistan State Oil, a state-owned entity responsible for marketing and distribution of petroleum products, denied any supply disruption due to the strike.
They said that alternative measures would be taken to ensure smooth supplies in the coming days.
So far, the oil supplies have not been fully disrupted since a faction of transporters belonging to the Oil Tankers Owners Association has distanced itself from the protest.
“In the current economic situation, the strike is not in the interest of the country and economy, so we have decided to stay away from it,” Haji Hanif Kakar, the association’s general secretary, said.


Pakistani Taliban warn women in northwest against working for government, NGOs

Updated 24 June 2021

Pakistani Taliban warn women in northwest against working for government, NGOs

  • Threaten "consequences" if women in North Waziristan take up jobs with government departments
  • In February this year, militants shot dead four female aid workers near a main town in North Waziristan

PESHAWAR: The Pakistani Taliban on Thursday warned women in Pakistan's northwest of "consequences" and meeting their "ultimate fate" if they took up jobs with the government or non-governmental organizations.

The Pakistani Taliban are an umbrella of militant groups called the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is banned by the Pakistani government and designated a terrorist group by the US. They are a separate entity from the Afghan Taliban.

In February this year, militants shot dead four female aid workers near Mir Ali, a main town in North Waziristan.

“Women are strictly warned not to undertake jobs at any government body or its stooges (NGOs) on the soil of (North) Waziristan, otherwise everyone knows its consequences,” TTP's spokesperson for North Waziristan, Abdul Rehman, said in a statement.

"Females from the adjacent Bannu or other districts continue to work with government or NGOs presumably for public welfare, but they are causing obscenity despite repeated warnings," Rehman said, adding that the women were "under our observation" and "will meet their ultimate fate soon."

TTP has been in disarray in recent years, after Pakistan military operations and US drone strikes targeting their hideouts in North and South Waziristan, but in August announced a reunion with some of its splinters. The group has since stepped up attacks on government troops and installations in tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, rising concerns that the militants are regrouping there.

The war-torn tribal belt remains one of the most underdeveloped areas of Pakistan.

Senior analyst Rustam Shah Mohmand said the TTP was trying to regain grip over the region and building pressure with threats.

"The TTP is now disorganized, desperate and wants to restore its standing," he said. "But people aren’t ready to accept them."


Individual countries deciding on vaccine acceptability for travel ‘creating chaos’ — Pakistani minister

Updated 24 June 2021

Individual countries deciding on vaccine acceptability for travel ‘creating chaos’ — Pakistani minister

  • Federal Minister for Planning Asad Umar says the health and well-being of world citizens cannot be held hostage to global geostrategic rivalries
  • Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi recently urged an international forum to abandon ‘vaccine nationalism’ and help developing nations

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s planning minister Asad Umar said on Thursday the decision concerning the travel suitability of various COVID-19 vaccines should be taken by relevant global institutions like the World Health Organization (WHO) instead of individual nations.
Umar, who also heads the National Command and Operations Center that oversees his country’s pandemic response, maintained in a Twitter post that the health and well-being of people across the world should not be held “hostage to global geostrategic rivalries.”
“Each country deciding which vaccine is acceptable for travel to that country is creating chaos,” he claimed.


Pakistan has heavily relied on COVID-19 vaccines prepared in China since the beginning of its immunization drive in February this year.
Many developed countries, however, have decided not to grant travel permission to people who took Chinese vaccines, asking world citizens to take Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna or Johnson and Johnson instead.
Chinese President Xi Jinping recently urged the international community to abandon “vaccine nationalism” and help developing nations with post-pandemic economic recovery.
Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi also upheld China’s perspective on the issue while addressing the Asia and Pacific High Level Conference on Belt and Road Cooperation on Wednesday.
“Echoing the sentiments of the speakers today, let me on behalf of this distinguished forum, endorse President Xi Jinping’s declaration of making COVID-19 vaccine a global public good, dispel notions of stigmatization, and reject vaccine nationalism,” Qureshi said. “We should make collective endeavors to ensure equitable and affordable supply of vaccine to developing countries.”
There are several vaccine brands available in the international market and every country has approved some specific version of it for its citizens, leading to a question of universal acceptability and creating obstacles for those traveling to other countries.
Early this week, Pakistan signed a deal with Pfizer for an additional 1.3 million COVID-19 doses without releasing details of its agreement.
The country has so far administered over 13.8 million doses and aims to vaccinate 70 million people by next year.
In recent weeks, Pakistan has witnessed a steady decline in COVID-19 cases and its positivity ratio has also reduced significantly.
According to official data, 1,097 people tested positive for the disease and 38 deaths were reported on Wednesday.
The country has so far reported 951,865 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 22,108 fatalities since the emergence of the pandemic last year.