LAHORE: Despite having reservations about Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s free flour scheme, the Punjab’s caretaker government succumbed to the pressure of the federal authorities and on Friday approved expansion of the project at an additional cost of Rs35 billion.
PM Sharif had announced through a tweet on March 7: “Finalised Ramazan package today prepared by the Punjab govt on my directions. Under this package, the poorest of the poor will be given flour free of cost. Federal government will work with other provinces to launch similar schemes for the benefit of people affected by inflation.”
The package was to initially cost around Rs53 billion to the provincial kitty as the government was to release 537,000 tonnes of wheat from its stocks to the flour mills for grinding and providing the commodity at the distribution points. The operational cost – administration, security and transportation – of the project was estimated to be Rs7bn.
Sources say that neither the Punjab government, nor bureaucracy was in favour of the scheme in its present form that is leading to deaths and injuries to the deserving people due to overcrowding and mismanagement at the distribution points.
It will cover every family living in the province
Incidents of stampede, chaos and snatching of flour bags at the distribution points are being reported on a daily basis from various towns of Punjab. Over half a dozen people have so far lost their lives and many elderly men and women have sustained injuries in these incidents.
Officials engaged in the flour distribution also blame the Punjab Information Technology Board’s ‘flawed’ app developed on the database of the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) for the inordinate delays in the distribution of the commodity.
Incidents of snatching flour bags are further confounding the situation as many bags were damaged and flour was being wasted. Despite an increase in the number of security personnel at these points the frustrated people queued up for hours are hard to to control.
The sources say the provincial authorities made an abortive attempt to convince the premier in their March 7 meeting that the deserving people should instead be paid in cash through the BISP database or provided subsidy in the powers bills for offsetting the impact of the historically high inflation, which is crossing 40pc.
They said the prime minister was also suggested that the subsidy on the flour which the Punjab government was already providing to the masses before setting in of Ramazan at a rate of Rs648 per 10kg bag, could be further increased to facilitate the downtrodden to avoid the mess
likely to be caused by the free flour distribution at the makeshift points. But, Mr Sharif rejected this option too and insisted on implementing the plan he desired to introduce.
Officials fear that the situation at distribution points will compound as the caretaker government buckled under pressure of PM Sharif and approved expansion of free atta distribution scheme at an additional cost of Rs35 billion on Friday.
“Practically all families living in Punjab and registered with Nadra (National Database and Registration Authority) will now be eligible to get free flour after the expansion of the scheme. Now even (real estate tycoon) Malik Riaz and Maryam Nawaz Sharif were also eligible for the facility as the revised plan puts no bars on eligibility of any family,” comments a participant in the meeting that approved the revised plan.Meanwhile, the 12th meeting of Punjab cabinet, which was presided over by caretaker Chief Minister Mohsin Naqvi, decided the families registered with the National Database Registration Authority (Nadra) would also be included in the scheme.
It said 15.8 million families had already been provided free flour under the BISP. The cabinet granted approval to purchase of 300,000 metric tonnes of additional wheat from Passco.
The provincial cabinet also gave approval to change the title of Ehsaas Ration Riyayat Programme into Free Flour Distribution Programme.
Published in Dawn, April 1st, 2023
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