'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.”


Ex-PM’s principal secretary says he handed over missing cypher to Khan — finance minister

Updated 01 October 2022

Ex-PM’s principal secretary says he handed over missing cypher to Khan — finance minister

  • Ruling party leader Maryam Nawaz says Khan’s residence should be raided to recover cypher
  • Finance minister says government will take mater to logical end under Official Secrets Act

ISLAMABAD: Finance Minister Ishaq Dar on Saturday said former premier Imran Khan’s principal secretary, Azam Khan, has admitted he gave the controversial cypher—which forms the basis of Khan’s “foreign conspiracy allegations”—to the ex-PM.  

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government said on Friday that a copy of the diplomatic cypher, based on a meeting between then Pakistani Ambassador to the US Asad Majeed and State Department official Donald Lu, was "missing" from the record of the PM's office. 

Khan, ousted via a parliamentary vote in April, has alleged Washington orchestrated the movement to remove him from office. The former prime minister’s political opponents, who are now in the government, have rubbished the allegations that the US also denies. 

The matter once again became a topic of public debate after the emergence of another purported audio clip online on Friday, involving Khan, his then principal secretary Azam Khan and two top aides, Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Asad Umar. 

“When the current principal secretary [Tauqir Hussain Shah] to PM Shehbaz Sharif inquired about the cypher’s whereabouts over the phone from former secretary [Azam Khan] to then Prime Minister Khan, he said that he had handed it over to Khan,” Dar told reporters at a news conference.  

He added the cypher is “an official, sacred document” which is the property of the Prime Minister's House. The finance minister was flanked by members of the federal cabinet and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) Vice-President Maryam Nawaz.  

Dar said the cypher was a secret document whose contents should not have been disclosed to anyone. He accused Khan of developing an anti-government narrative around it.  

In one of the audio leaks released earlier this week, former PM Khan’s principal secretary can be heard advising him to hold a meeting with then foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Khan and the then foreign secretary to discuss the cypher.  

“Qureshi would read out the letter and whatever he reads out, we will turn it into a copy. I will do that in the minutes [of the meeting] that the Foreign Secretary has told this. Then the analysis will be done here [at the PM Office],” the former principal secretary said.  

“We will do analysis of minutes [of meeting] of our own choice, this way minutes would be on the records of the [PM] office. The analysis will be that [the cypher] was a threat,” Khan’s former principal secretary had said.  

Referring to the conversation, Dar raised suspicion that the cypher was missing from the Prime Minister’s House but the minutes of the meeting were present there. The finance minister said the language of the minutes pointed out that it could not be used by any diplomat. He said the government wanted to compare it to the original cypher.  

It has now been established, he said, that the conspiracy was not hatched by the then opposition but by Khan’s party which now stands completely exposed.   

“We will be failing in our national duty, failing in our oath, failing in our constitutional duty, if we will not take appropriate action on this,” Dar added. 

In this regard, he added that a detailed meeting of the National Security Committee and the cabinet had already taken place, adding that the issue could not be ignored.  

“This is an unpardonable offense and we will commit treason if we will not take it to its logical conclusion,” he said. “The decision has been taken to fulfill our national duty to take this matter forward under the Official Secrets Act and according to the law and constitution,” he added. 

Nawaz demanded a public apology from Khan, accusing him of misusing a sensitive diplomatic document to harm the country’s interests and foreign relations with the US.  

“You have tampered with a very sensitive document related to the country. You have conspired against Pakistan’s diplomatic relations,” she added. 

She said PM Sharif had informed her that countries were not willing to communicate with Pakistan out of fear that their messages would be used for political purposes.  

“He should seek an apology from the nation for playing with the country’s national interest and waving a fake letter in front of them,” she added. 

 Nawaz said Khan’s Bani Gala residence should be raided to recover the cypher. 

“The government should raid Bani Gala to recover the copy of the cypher and the original minutes of the meeting,” she said, citing the FBI’s raid at the palatial residence of former US president Donald Trump as a reference.


Islamabad magistrate issues arrest warrant for ex-PM Imran Khan

Updated 58 min 17 sec ago

Islamabad magistrate issues arrest warrant for ex-PM Imran Khan

  • Khan has been accused of threatening judge in impassioned speech on August 20
  • Former PM submits affidavit in court saying ready to apologize to judge

ISLAMABAD: Islamabad magistrate Rana Mujahid Rahim on Saturday issued an arrest warrant for former Prime Minister Imran Khan for allegedly threatening a woman judge at a rally in August.
 The arrest warrant, seen by Arab News, includes four sections of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC). These include sections 506 (punishment for criminal intimidation), 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace), 189 (threat of injury to public servant), and 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant).
Khan had criticized Chaudhry in an impassioned speech during a rally on August 20 in Islamabad's F-9 park. The rally was held to protest his chief of staff Dr. Shahbaz Gill's arrest. At the rally, the ex-premier promised his supporters he would not “spare” the Islamabad inspector general and deputy inspector general of police, adding his party would also “take action” against Chaudhry, who had remanded Gill in police custody.
However, Islamabad Police clarified that the warrant was issued to ensure Khan appeared before the court in the next hearing of the case since he had missed the previous one. It said the Islamabad High Court (IHC) had thrown out terror charges against Khan, after which the case against him for criticizing the judge was shifted to a session court.

 

 

“Imran Khan has still not obtained bail from the session court,” Islamabad Police wrote on Twitter. “In case he does not appear [for the next hearing], he can be arrested. We request people not to heed rumors.”
Asad Umar, secretary-general of Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, warned authorities against arresting the former premier. "Don't make the mistake of taking Imran Khan into custody. You will regret it," he wrote on Twitter.

 

 

The IHC took notice of the speech and accused the ex-premier of threatening her in a contempt of court case. However, after Khan’s apology in court last week, the IHC—expected to indict the former premier—said it was satisfied with his response and asked him to submit a written affidavit.
 On Friday, Khan appeared before Chaudhry’s court to tender an apology in person but she was reportedly on leave. In an affidavit that Khan submitted at the IHC earlier today,  Saturday, the politician said he had struggled for the respect and independence of the judiciary in Pakistan for the past 26 years.
“That the deponent realized during these proceedings before the Honourable Court that the deponent might have crossed a red line while making public speech on 20 August 2022,” he wrote.
Khan said he never meant to threaten the judge and that “there was no intention behind the statement to take any action other than a legal action.”
The ex-premier said he was willing to explain and clarify before Chaudhry that neither he nor his party sought or intended to seek any action against her. “The deponent is willing to apologize to the Hon'ble Judge if she got an impression that the deponent had crossed a line,” he added.
Khan assured the court he would never do anything in future that would hurt the dignity of any court and the judiciary, especially the lower judiciary.
The cricket-star turned politician has faced a barrage of legal woes since his ouster in a vote of no-confidence in April by a united opposition led by his successor, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.


Iranian city goes into blackout after IRGC intelligence chief killed in clashes

Updated 01 October 2022

Iranian city goes into blackout after IRGC intelligence chief killed in clashes

  • At least 36 people believed to have died when security forces opened fire on demonstrators
  • Protests broke out in Zahedan after an outcry over the rape of a 15-year-old girl

QUETTA: Communication services were down in the southeastern Iranian city of Zahedan on Saturday, after a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander was killed in clashes.  

Protests broke out in the capital of the Sistan and Balochistan province bordering Pakistan on Friday after an outcry over the rape of a 15-year-old Baloch girl, allegedly by a local military commander.

Ali Mousavi, IRGC intelligence chief of Sistan and Balochistan, was shot during the confrontation with protesters. The IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency reported he was pronounced dead at a hospital.

Residents of southeast Iran's Zahedan city tend to a wounded person after police shot at protesters on Sept. 30, 2022. (Photo courtesy: Muhammad Asif)

The killing was claimed by the Jaish Al-Adl militant group, which says it is fighting for the independence of Sistan and Baluchistan and greater rights for Baloch people, who are the main ethnic group in the province.

Footage emerging from Zahedan showed people carrying dead and wounded protesters amid heavy gunfire. The provincial administration said 19 people have died in the clashes. Local news agency Haal-e Vash reported the number of deaths to be at least 36, with dozens of others wounded.  

The internet has been blocked and mobile networks largely shut down in the city and surrounding areas since Friday, data from watchdog Netblocks shows, with residents of neighboring towns saying they have been unable to reach their relatives.

Mohammad Zia, a shopkeeper in Taftan, a city on Iran’s border with Pakistan, some 90 km from Zahedan, told Arab News that in some parts of the town weak mobile signals could be caught.

“But the internet services are still suspended in the entire Sistan and Balochistan region,” he said.

Muhammad Asif, who lives in Nokundi, a nearby town on the Pakistani side of the border, said he received disturbing footage from the deadly clashes in Zahedan on Friday and has since been unable to contact his family there.

“I have been constantly trying to contact my cousin who traveled there for business,” he said. “Due to the internet and mobile network blackout I am unable to contact him, which increases my worries.”

The death of the provincial IRGC intelligence chief is a major escalation in the antigovernment demonstrations that began in mid-September, triggered by the death of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, in the custody of Iranian morality police.

The country-wide rallies have been the largest manifestation of dissent against the Iranian government in over a decade.

As of Friday, at least 83 protesters have been killed by security forces, mainly in the provinces of Mazandaran, Gilan, Western Azerbaijan, Kermanshah, Kurdistan, Alborz, and the capital Tehran, according to the Norway-based Iran Human Rights organization.

Thousands of demonstrators and civil activists have been arrested.

The toll is likely to increase with the Sistan and Balochistan casualties.


Pakistan calls Afghan Taliban official’s remarks ‘against spirit of friendly ties’

Updated 01 October 2022

Pakistan calls Afghan Taliban official’s remarks ‘against spirit of friendly ties’

  • Taliban's deputy foreign minister this week called on Pakistan not to 'interfere' in Afghanistan’s internal affairs
  • The comments came in response to concern shared by Pakistan PM at UNGA regarding threat posed by militant groups

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan on Friday termed as "against the spirit of friendly relations" the recent remarks by the Taliban's Deputy Foreign Minister Sher Abbas Stanikzai, in which he had called on Pakistan not to “interfere” in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. 

Stanikzai's statement this week referred to the concern shared by Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif regarding the threat posed by militant groups operating from the neighboring country during the latter's address with the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on September 23. 

In response, Pakistan's foreign office on Friday stressed the need for Afghan interim authorities to take necessary steps to address international expectations and concerns.

“This is very unfortunate and unacceptable. We have noted with concern, these recent remarks,” Pakistan foreign office spokesperson, Asim Iftikhar Ahmed, said at a weekly press briefing. 

"We consider such statements as against the spirit of friendly relations between our two brotherly countries"." 

Stanikzai had said that they condemned the Pakistan prime minister’s statement and that no one had the right to "interfere" in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. 

“Obviously there is no interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. To the contrary, our Afghan friends are well aware of Pakistan’s support and advocacy for Afghanistan, for the international community to engage positively and constructively with Afghanistan, given the serious challenges, the economic situation and the humanitarian situation that is faced by the Afghan people,” Ahmed said. 

“I think it is very clear that it is in the interest of the people of Afghanistan that Pakistan has been advocating constructive international engagement. We have played our role in this regard.” 

In his UNGA address, PM Sharif had said that Pakistan shared the key concern of the international community regarding the threat posed by "major terrorist groups operating from Afghanistan, especially ISIL-K and TTP as well as Al-Qaida, ETIM and IMU."  

“They all need to be dealt with comprehensively, with the support and cooperation of the Interim Afghan authorities. In turn, the international community should address Afghanistan’s dire humanitarian needs,” he had said. 

Also on Friday, Pakistan condemned a “terrorist attack” on an educational institute in the Afghan capital of Kabul, which killed at least 19 people. 

"The government and people of Pakistan extend their profound and heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families and pray for early recovery of the injured," Islamabad said in a statement. 

"We stand in complete solidarity with our Afghan brethren in the fight against the scourge of terrorism." 


Pakistan committed to further deepen its relations with UAE – PM Sharif 

Updated 01 October 2022

Pakistan committed to further deepen its relations with UAE – PM Sharif 

  • UAE is Pakistan’s largest trading partner in Middle East and home to more than 1.6 million Pakistanis 
  • PM Shehbaz Sharif expresses gratitude for relief assistance provided by the UAE to the flood-hit people 

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on Friday said his country wished to further deepen its ties with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as he met Emirati Ambassador Hamad Obaid Al-Zaabi, according to PM Sharif’s office. 

Pakistan and the UAE have close fraternal relations and bilateral cooperation in a range of fields. The UAE is also Pakistan’s largest trading partner in the Middle East and home to more than 1.6 million Pakistani nationals. 

In his meeting with Ambassador Al-Zaabi, the Pakistan premier reaffirmed the importance Islamabad attached to its relations with the UAE. 

“Pakistan was committed to further deepen its relations with the United Arab Emirates in all areas of common interest,” PM Sharif said. 

“Pakistan and the UAE enjoy close fraternal ties for five decades that are rooted firmly in common belief and shared values and culture.” 

The prime minister also expressed gratitude for the relief assistance provided by the UAE and for establishing an air corridor to provide humanitarian assistance to the flood-hit people in Pakistan. 

The UAE started operating an air bridge to transport humanitarian aid on August 28 and has since dispatched more than 40 relief flights to support Pakistan, where floods have killed more than 1,600 people and affected 33 million others. 

The relief aid includes shelters, food and medicines for people affected by unprecedented rains and floods in the South Asian country since mid-June.