HARIPUR: Without taking even a day off from work, septuagenarian Fatema Bibi continues to return to work every day, toiling under the gruelling sun despite her aching limbs in the hope that she will be paid by the end of the day.
But she goes back home empty-handed like the rest of the 80 to 90 daily wage earners who work at the government-owned nursery in Basti Sherkhan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s (KP) Haripur district. There are some 63 acres of government-owned nurseries spread across Haripur and no one has been paid their wages since December 2018. In fact, it is not just Haripur, but the entire KP province where workers have not been paid for nearly six months.
The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government, basking in the success of its Billion Tree Tsunami Afforestation Project (BTTAP), had enthusiastically and hurriedly announced a much bigger Ten Billion Tree Tsunami (10BTT) project when it came to power in August last year. It also earmarked Rs143 billion from its domestic resources to expand forests over the next five years, but the men and women working at government nurseries on daily wages of Rs500 are desperately waiting to see a portion of it transferred onto them.
KP information minister says that all wages would be cleared before Eid
“We have spoken to our officers, written to them, but no one pays any heed to us,” said Asif Hussain Shah, the nursery supervisor at Basti Sherkhan.
Pointing to the over dozen women sitting huddled inside his one-room cabin, he said dramatically: “Each one of these women is needier than the other and I am tired of our daily fights and cajoling and coercing them to come to work and tend to the plants.”
In addition, he said now the shopkeepers are also hounding them. “They had stopped giving groceries to them due to mounting debt but then we intervened and guaranteed that the government will pay them and to continue providing them the rations,” said Shah.
He is worried what will become of the nurseries if workers stop coming en masse. “The saplings will die, we need them,” he admitted.
Project director for the BTTAP, Mohammad Tehmasip, is getting sleepless nights with each passing day. “The five years of trust we had painstakingly built with the community has irreparably been damaged.”
The non-payment has put a dent on the programme in the entire province. KP’s environment secretary Nazar Shah, admitting to the sorry state of the financial flow, had this to say: “This irregular flow of funds has been a huge challenge.” He added that it was already in the notice of federal and provincial governments and was concerned it may put the entire 10BTT programme in jeopardy and give it a bad name even before it gets started.
But it seems smooth flow of funds has been a problem that workers faced in the earlier BTTAP project too. The WWF-Pakistan in its 2017 audit report had pointed out that delays in release of funds had “created uncertainty and doubts on the parts of farmers and labours” noting that the community forest guards or negehbans as they are called had not been paid for up to nine months.
When contacted, KP Information Minister Shaukat Yousufzai told Dawn that the payment of wages had been delayed because the relevant PC-1 was under process. He said a summary had been moved to the chief minister and the document was now almost ready.
In reply to a question, Mr Yousufzai said the first three months of the year were best for sowing and in order to take maximum advantage of the season the sowing was started without waiting for the approval of the PC-1.
The minister held out the assurance that all the wages would be cleared before Eid.
Given the scale of the 10BTT which traverses “diverse forestry models — from mangroves to plantation blocks to natural reserves and urban forestation” — and with PTI forming its governments in just “two provinces and partial coalition in another and opposition in three provinces”, Malik Amin Aslam, federal minister and adviser to the prime minister on climate change, acknowledged that “achieving a consensus implementation model and mode of financing has been an uphill challenge”.
However, now after almost “100 consultative meetings”, he said, a consensus umbrella budget document has been prepared and submitted for financing and he is hoping the workers will be paid their dues soon.
Published in Dawn, May 16th, 2019