The Prime Minister recently announced a 120-billion-rupee subsidy programme to mitigate the hardships of the inflation-hit public. He also lauded the government’s flagship social protection programme, the Ehsaas Programme (EP), for collecting data on the financial status of families across the country. While the praise showered upon EP is well-deserved, the programme is not without its pitfalls.

The most important component of EP is the Ehsaas Kafaalat Programme (EKP), which entails the provision of cash stipends of 2,000 rupees monthly to the poorest women across the country. EKP is essentially a rebranding of what was originally known as the Benazir Income Support Programme, launched in 2008, by the Pakistan Peoples Party government.

The EP website indicates that 134 billion rupees were deposited in beneficiary accounts under EKP during the fiscal year 2020-21. Of this amount, only 5.8 billion rupees were deposited in beneficiaries’ accounts in Balochistan, which makes up a mere 4.35 percent of the total amount. The share of beneficiaries from Balochistan in actual disbursement is even lower than 4.35 percent. Prior to 2020-21, the share in the programme of beneficiaries from Balochistan was even lesser, hovering between three to four percent.

That the historical and current share of beneficiaries from Balochistan in the country’s premier social protection programme is even less than the province’s share in the total population is outrageously discriminatory and inequitable.

Most of the studies conducted by the government and donor agencies to estimate incidence of poverty across the country calculate poverty based on the data of the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement surveys and Household Integrated Economic Surveys. Nearly all studies on poverty conducted over the past decade indicate that Balochistan remains the poorest province and that its poor population accounts for approximately 10-11 percent of the country’s total poor population.

Why do so few from Balochistan benefit from the Ehsaas Programme, the country’s flagship social protection programme?

In this regard, three studies are worth quoting. First, according to estimates of poverty carried out by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics in May 2020, nearly 41 percent of households in Balochistan live below the income poverty line, accounting for approximately 11 percent of the total poor households in the country.

Secondly, according to the Pakistan Multidimensional Poverty Index Report 2016, 71 percent of Balochistan’s population lives in multidimensional poverty, which is 10 percent of Pakistan’s total multidimensionally poor population.

Similarly, the Pakistan National Human Development Report 2020 on Inequality, produced by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), shows that Balochistan is over-proportionately represented among the poorest 20 percent compared to the province’s share in the overall national population distribution. Balochistan’s share in the poorest and richest income quintile stands at 9.3 percent and 2.08 percent, respectively.

Since the aforementioned studies of poverty indicate that Balochistan’s share in overall income poverty, multidimensional poverty and extreme poverty ranges between 9.3 percent and 11 percent, the minimum share of beneficiaries from Balochistan in the EKP should be around 9.3 percent to 11 percent.

Alternatively, the province’s share should be according to the horizontal distribution criteria set by the 7th National Finance Commission Award — 9.09 percent, a share that has been given constitutional protection by the 18th Constitutional Amendment.

The accompanying graphical illustration of provincial shares in income poverty and the 7th National Finance Commission Award (NFC) versus their actual share in EKP vividly highlights Balochistan’s under-representation compared to other provinces.

The key factor responsible for the alarmingly low share of Balochistan is the inadequate and flawed National Socio-Economic Registry database, on the basis of which poverty scorecards are developed using the Proxy Means Test methodology.

As is the case with nearly all national surveys and household censuses, especially the latter, accurate coverage of the entire target population in Balochistan has always remained a challenge. The province’s small population scattered over a large territory, poor communication network, insurgency, and trends of seasonal and forced displacement, combined with inadequate capacity of data collecting teams, make it almost impossible to cover the entire populace.

Furthermore, there are methodological biases in the data collection instrument, processes, and systemic biases in the overall governance and management structure of the EP.

For example, since Balochistan is the poorest province accounting for nearly half of the country’s territory, the biggest and most resourceful administrative set-up of the EP should be in Balochistan. But in reality, the set-up here is small, understaffed and under-resourced and, hence, Balochistan’s poor and ultra-poor are missing from the database of the country’s premier social safety programme.

The issue of Balochistan’s under-representation in federal programmes is not restricted to EKP alone. Balochistan’s share among recipients of other interventions of Ehsaas is even less than two percent, as is the case with the Kamyab Jawan Programme, agriculture loans and various subsidies.

For instance, the Utility Stores Corporation (USC) is one of the most important government policy instruments to counter inflationary pressures through the provision of subsidies on essential food and non-food items. But, according to its website, the branches of USC are present only in seven districts of Balochistan, excluding 27 of the country’s poorest districts.

This concerningly low representation of Balochistan among beneficiaries of the country’s social protection programmes, among other factors, explains why there is an increasing gap between Balochistan and rest of Pakistan in terms of levels of poverty and socio-economic development. UNDP’s recent report on inequality confirms that Balochistan is falling behind other provinces on all socio-economic development indicators.

The under-representation in social protection programmes and the fact that Balochistan is almost always ignored in large-scale infrastructure projects — on the grounds that the province offers low returns on investment — guarantees that the gap between Balochistan and the rest of the country will increase even further.

This increase in socio-economic disparities between Balochistan and the rest of the country is not a coincidence, but a result of deliberate socio-economic neglect and an anti-poor and majoritarian public policy paradigm. It is this growing inequality and sense of deprivation that has made the province a fertile breeding ground for extremist narratives and violent conflicts.

Moving forward, Balochistan’s share among the recipients of the EKP should be fixed at 11 percent, at a minimum. The capacity and resources of the EP’s administrative set-up in Balochistan should be augmented and upgraded, while representatives of the province should be made members of the governing body as well as the project’s management team.

Only then will we start moving towards poverty alleviation in the country and truly meeting the ambitious goals set by the EKP.

Dr Muhammad Saleem, holds a PhD in Development Studies from Erasmus University, Netherlands. He evaluated the Benazir Income Support Programme during his dissertation. He tweets @memzarma

Rafiullah Kakar is a public policy and development specialist from Balochistan. He tweets @rafiullahkakar

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 14th, 2021



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