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Punjab: well begun, but only half done

September 13, 2015


MOHAMMAD Ramzan, a construction worker from a village on the outskirts of Bahawalpur, was 19 when the world adopted the MDGs in the year 2000. Fifteen years later when the world was expected to have achieved the time-bound targets, a totally illiterate Ramzan is struggling to feed his family of six, including his ageing parents. His elder son, now 10, works as an ‘apprentice’ at a motorcycle repair shop in Muzaffargarh and his younger son, just 7, helps his uncle at his roadside tea stall.

“There’s no use sending them to school; they must work and learn to earn their livelihood from an early age,” Ramzan said when asked why his children were not at school. “What’s the use of going to school and sleep on an empty stomach? My older boy is strong for his age, but the younger one is too frail to do hard jobs. So his mother gave him under the care of her brother.”

Punjab was the first province in the early 2000s to link its annual development investment with the MDGs and is assessed by the UNDP to be “far head of the other provinces” in achieving targets for 2015. Yet it is still “off track” in achieving the targets for the “majority of indicators”.

Officials blame the recent years of economic slowdown, political instability, terrorism, floods and other factors for missing the targets. “Punjab was on track on almost all indicators before the economic growth started to flag in 2008,” a senior official claimed.

“But the progress on MDGs slowed down because of economic slowdown on increasing political instability and worsening security conditions in the province and elsewhere in the country,” he went on, adding: “Global financial crisis, sharp spike in the world oil and commodity prices and decreasing ass­is­tance from both the multilateral and bilateral donors also aff­ected the government’s ability to finance development projects targeting poverty and regional inequalities in the province.”

Officials, however, insist that the Shahbaz Sharif government was committed to achieving the targets for the MDGs by 2018. “The present government is the first one working for the achievement of MDGs. It is implementing its growth policy to expand the economy of the province by eight per cent by 2018, cut poverty, create jobs, put children in schools, increase opportunities for women and improve health facilities and cover,” a provincial planning and development department official said.

The growth policy focuses on “increasing private-sector investment, narrowing security gaps, imparting skills to two million people, creating one million jobs annually and promoting inclusive growth with special focus on women, girls and the marginalised to achieve the MDGs”.

“The policy gives special attention to pro-poor initiatives and interventions to alleviate poverty, creation of jobs, provision of school education and health facilities to all and gender mainstreaming to achieve the MDGs,” the official argued.

Other officials said the government’s poverty-focused investments targeted at improving the productive sectors and infrastructure, and the social sector spending has sharply been raised over the last five years because of the space provided by increased fund transfer under the National Finance Commission (NFC). “The province’s annual development programme (ADP) has been increased to Rs400 billion for this year with chunk of it allocated to the social sector,” he stressed.

But many remain skeptical of the government’s commitment and ability to pull off growth and achieve the MDG targets in the next three years. “In the past we have not seen enough commitment on the part of the government to raise findings for sectors that directly help the poor and alleviate poverty,” said an economist who has worked for the federal government in the past.

“The social sector and the region that houses most of the poor in the province — southern Punjab — were the main victims of the 30 per cent development investment cuts last year. The cut in funding for social sector development and the poorer southern region was made to make room for projects that would politically help the ruling party in the next election without regard for its impact on the common man,” he claimed.

He noted that the increase in federal transfers under the present NFC award in the last five years was mostly diverted to non-development expenditure. “The allocations for the development budget don’t even match the government’s own medium-term development framework. The amount of Rs400 billion set aside for development in the budget for the present year, for example, is 11 per cent lower than the funds envisioned in the MTDF,” he concluded.

Unless the government actually spends more money in targeted areas, people like Ramzan will never be able to send their children to school or gain access to clean drinking water and health cover.

Published in Dawn, September 13th, 2015

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