DURING a national emergency, like the present one triggered by Covid-19, greater transparency in the implementation of relief measures and stricter accountability at all levels can help the political leadership win public trust and strengthen democracy.
The nation has heard enough about fiscal packages for supporting jobless and low-income people and for stimulating economic growth. Now it is time for the government to share information about how their implementation is progressing.
On March 30, the federal government announced the allocation of Rs1.24 trillion for financing different measures to provide relief to people and support economic growth amidst Covid-19.
An important portion of the entire package was Rs100 billion “Residual/Emergency Fund” for the “evolving needs” amidst the coronavirus outbreak. Another portion envisaged the disbursement of Rs144bn worth of additional funds for at the rate of Rs3,000 per month to 12 million poor families through the Kafalat programme and Ehsas emergency cash assistance.
Isn’t it time for the federal government to inform the nation how the twin assistance packages have met the stated objectives and whether they actually reached the pockets of those targeted for this subsidy? What evolving needs amidst the pandemic have been met out of Rs100bn funds and how much of Rs150bn financial support fund for the weaker segments of society has been consumed so far — and in what manner?
Verifiable details need to be presented before the public to remove misgivings and confusion. Social media is filled with complaints of mismanagement in the implementation of these and other financial assistance packages. Many among the poor complain they have so far got nothing.
Some say copies of their national identity cards were collected by the PTI’s tiger force and staff of local district administrations with the promise that they would soon receive cash assistance, but they are still waiting for it. What lends credence to such complaints is the fact that leading NGOs in major cities were seen far more active in the distribution of rations than the federal or provincial governments.
The Sindh government’s ration distribution has, in particular, attracted countless complaints of gross mismanagement. A blame game between the federal and Sindh governments continues as to who actually is responsible for the unfulfilled promises about providing relief to the poor and the jobless. This must stop now and both federal and provincial authorities must share with the general public how they have implemented or are still implementing relief programmes.
A very important component of the Rs1.24tr financial support and economic stimulus package was the Rs200bn fund to be spent on protecting jobs and incomes of industrial and business workers and daily-wagers. The State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) is also involved in the implementation of this programme.
People have a right to know how this programme is progressing: how many businesses and industries have so far received public money out of this fund? Do they use the same for the declared purpose? On May 11, the SBP informed the nation that banks had received “requests of more than 1,440 businesses for the financing of over Rs103bn for providing wages and salaries to around one million employees”. They are the people whose jobs these businesses claim to have supported.
The number of businesses making similar requests may have increased by now and with that the size of the funds requested. One should hope the central bank will continue updating the nation about it — every time with greater details for the sake of transparency and accountability. The SBP, for example, can identify the sectors and sub-sectors of such businesses and quantify the numbers of the employees whose jobs they claim to have saved. Besides, the central bank should disclose what percentage of the funds requested by such businesses has been disbursed.
The financial relief and economic stimulus package had a component of Rs100bn for supporting industries and facilitating exports. In the implementation of this part of the package, banks and the FBR are involved and the SBP and the Ministry of Finance are monitoring their performance. The SBP and the ministry should start updating the nation — say, every fortnightly — on how industries have so far benefited and in which areas of exports this funding is making an impact. Details will matter. Generalised statements can hardly boost public confidence in the implementation of the declared objectives. The same is true for Rs100bn earmarked under the agriculture and SME facilitation component of the economic stimulus package.
Minister for National Food Security and Research Fakhar Imam said recently he would take the provinces on board for the implementation of the agriculture support package. The nation was expecting him to give some clues about the pace of progress on the promises contained in the package. Is there any scope for expanding its size? At the time of the announcement of agriculture support measures, farmer lobbies had termed it “too meagre”. Sweet talk of taking the provinces on board is too vague. Currently, there exists a huge trust deficit between the federal and provincial governments, particularly between the centre and Sindh. And this is making it difficult for the nation to behave responsibly during the pandemic. Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah has complained about it several times openly yet diplomatically.
Just like agriculture, the SME sector’s support package of Rs50bn also remains short of its actual requirement. What is worse is that SMEs continue to cry about mismanagement in the implementation of the package. Many of them complain the pace of disbursement of concessional loans is too slow and the picking of their energy bills by the government lacks transparency.
Covid-19 cases are skyrocketing after the fuller easing of lockdown restrictions from June 1. The re-imposition of some restrictions, including the closure of business centres, is possible. That may increase the need for further financial relief for the weaker segments of society and further economic support to agriculture and SME sectors. Before this happens, the federal and provincial governments must learn to work together — with due transparency and accountability.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, June 8th, 2020