Feeding the hungry

October 09, 2019

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IT is laudable that Prime Minister Imran Khan remains committed to his cherished aim of creating a welfare state in Pakistan. Sadly for him, patience is running out and the schemes that have been launched thus far appear to many as mere photo ops. He recently renewed his pledge to push ahead for a welfare state that provides for the poor and the needy on the premises of a soup kitchen run by the Saylani Welfare International Trust near Peshawar Morr, Islamabad. He promised 1,200 more such facilities across the country in what seems to be a cooperative model between private and government initiatives to run welfare schemes. He also used the occasion to ask critics as well as his supporters to be patient, once again invoking the example of the state of Madina while also arguing that 70 years of ‘wrong policies’ in Pakistan could not be reversed in 13 months.

But perhaps the event is more noteworthy for what was not said. For example, when he came to power, the prime minister had himself told the country to give his government three months before criticising his administration. Today, 13 months later, he is asking for patience but cannot say how long the people will have to wait to see the promised benefits. He has also said nothing about how the model soup kitchen he unveiled will be scaled up. When launching the Ehsaas programme back in March, he had pledged to carry out a string of important reforms, with legislative changes accompanying the rollout of the programme. But as of today, most of those promises are languishing while the photo ops continue. For instance, the accompanying policy statement of the Ehsaas programme said that the allocation formula of the NFC award would be retooled to make it more “need-based” and more responsive to welfare-oriented goals. However so far, his government has not been able to advance the NFC talks, and the agenda it brought to the last round of talks was not in keeping with the policy statement of the Ehsaas programme.

No doubt the prime minister is right to point out that profound or radical change will not come in 13 months. But surely, the public should be witnessing greater effort and progress in this direction. A ministry has been created for social protection and poverty alleviation, and various programmes have been clubbed under it. But eventually, the poor need protection from rising inflation, especially food inflation. Soup kitchens are fine as a palliative in these times, but they do not amount to a policy response. The government needs to stop taking critical comments to heart, and focus its energies on more holistic policy responses to get through the difficult times it says we must live through before the break of a new dawn.

Published in Dawn, October 9th, 2019