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New governments to fine-tune BISP

June 03, 2013

UNDER the changed political scenario in Islamabad and the provinces, the Benazir Income Support Programme is unlikely to survive in its present shape as the incoming governments have different perspectives of combating poverty.

While the BISP boasts of having doled out more than Rs139 billion so far among the poor who receive Rs1,000 every month, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, which is to form governments at the centre and Punjab, is no so enthusiastic about the idea of cash transfers.

Some beneficiaries, it believes, get used to receiving easy money and stop making conscious effort to generate income. It does not reject the need for income support programme but insists it should be a transparent one helping the needy families with a special focus on widows, orphans and the girl child. What needs to be ensured is that resources under these programmes are not misused as is being alleged in the case of BISP.

The PML-N, its manifesto says, will introduce the concept of social entrepreneurship to ensure that the additional cash grants given to vulnerable communities for supporting their limited income do not end up being counterproductive It will encourage public-private partnerships to take full advantage of the capacity already built by numerous community organisations to respond to emergencies and national calamities. It plans to legislate the ‘Right to Food’ as a fundamental right to make sure that the poor have access to affordable food grains in all parts of the country. The procurement programmes will be strengthened so that all farmers receive the guaranteed support price for grains.

But more tricky is the issue of transfer of social protection subject to the provinces as required under the 18th Amendment which needs to be re-examined given the May11 general elections results as every province is going to have a different party government and a consensus programme is unlikely to emerge. In fact, the very concept of social protection may need to be redefined to ensure compatibility among provinces’ programmes and also determine the centre’s role. So far, the centre and provinces had reportedly reached an understanding, post devolution, under which the centre was to look after the subject as before.

The case of Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa will be interesting to watch where Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI), committed to bring about basic changes in all sectors, is forming its government. Its social protection or poverty alleviation programme is a complete departure from the past. The PTI does not talk about any cash transfers or loans to the poor. Research has shown, its manifesto says, that eonomic growth does not always benefit the poor. Nor is there evidence that microfinance has led to reduction in poverty.

Instead, it is the ownership or access to assets (land and/or cattle) which is the single most powerful variable in the rural areas that reduces the chances of being poor by 55 per cent. In urban areas, employment reduces the chances of being poor by 45 per cent. Rural poverty incidence among families owning some land, even as low as one acre, is 17 per cent and among families that own no land, it is 32 per cent.

The focus of PTI’s poverty reduction strategy is on rural land reforms under which the maximum number of rural households should own a minimum-specified area of land. Similarly, the state and military controlled land in urban areas needs to be allocated for development of housing estates, with on average three marla/80 square yards plots. Pakistan People’s Party plans to raise the amount of monthly cash payments to the very poor from Rs1000 to Rs2000 which it can do in Sindh only where it is forming its government.

The BISP was launched in October 2008 to provide social security cover to families living under absolute poverty with an initial allocation of Rs34 billion by the government which increased to Rs70 billion during 2011-12 to cover almost 5.5 million families across the country. But not all found eligible are receiving assistance because of resource constraints.

The programme has received funds from the World Bank, British Department for International Development (DFID) and Asian Development Bank. It is running several projects in the domains of poverty reduction, education and healthcare besides providing technical training to the poor. In the pre-election period in particular, the BISP had come under fire within and outside the country for alleged misuse of funds and documents by members and candidates of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party mostly in Punjab. The beneficiaries in certain districts were told to vote for the PPP candidates by the BISP officials.

In April, British newspapers The Telegraph and Daily Mail published reports accusing the BISP of misuse of Britain’s aid. They claimed that 267million pounds provided by DFID to help the very poor is ‘helping to bankroll’ the re-election campaign of the People’s Party. Their reports were based on an evidence to a House of Commons inquiry by a development economist Dr Ehtisham Ahmad who said the DFID was “pouring money into a scheme used to buy votes.” However, the British government has not cut down its aid to the BISP. In fact, it was thinking to increase the amount of aid.

The criticism of doling out of huge amounts of money without signs of any reduction in poverty has also been vocal within the inner circle of the ruling party. In one cabinet meeting, Dr Abdul Hafeez Sheikh was reported to have said that the economy would not improve when it was not going in the right direction, and when the government was offering billions of rupees in cash to the people. The loans were best suited for income-generating projects, not for direct or indirect subsidies, he had said.

Then, some districts are reported to have received special favours from the BISP in pre-election period. For instance, a sum of Rs3.14billion was distributed in Badin district, which is a stronghold of the People's Party. Multan also received a large share of the BISP funds — more than Rs5 billion. The focus of the programme was South Punjab and Sindh.