The flagship poverty alleviation Ehsas program has already earned a reputation as a “globally leading exemplar on how to tackle poverty.” With the extension of the financial assistance to around seven million deserving women around the country, this safety programme serves as yet another reminder of the government being mindful of the painful impact of the extraordinarily pressing times on poor households.
It remains to be seen how passionately the opposition parties jump to the occasion to hark about a meagre sum of Rs 2000 failing to suffice the never-ending expenses. But all technicalities aside, the very fact that these needy families have a sympathetic state on their side says a lot about shifting winds. No one can make light of their plight. Plainly put, there is no way any government–let alone one trapped deeply in the economic quicksand–can perfectly protect its disadvantaged segments from fallouts of rising inflation and a steep dip in employment. At present, up to 40 per cent of Pakistanis are living below the poverty line (thanks to the pandemic). With millions succumbing to the health crisis, countless more are at an aggravated risk of reduced earning. Coupled with a cautious private sector, anemic economic growth and skyrocketing food inflation, the post-COVID circumstances are all set to open deadlier can of worms. Realistically speaking, those on the lowest rung of the society are already fighting a battle to survive–barely–every day. With half the children under the age of five suffering from stunted growth and about a fifth braving wasting, it should come as no surprise that Pakistan had the world’s highest newborn mortality rate in 2018. We rank 88th out of 107 countries on the Global Hunger Index and the level of hunger our people suffer from is lamented as “serious.” Now, this is not to restrict the sufferings of those in the under-developed segments to nutrition alone. But given that food costs form a hefty chunk of an average household’s budget, these dismal human development indices make the Ehsaas programme all the more relevant to an average Pakistani. The social safety programme has already made headlines for its impressive rollout, a brigade of resources being devoted to the cause and dedicated personnel like Special Assistant Dr Sania Nishtar. Recently, a British firm working with governments to achieve development hailed the programme for its focus on accountability and impact. Pakistan does not have much precedence for such extensive social welfare. A previous megaproject, Benazir Income Support Programme, soon fell out of popularity because of widespread problems with the smartcard and the dubious phone banking approach. As for the Ehsaas programme, its successful legacy depends on a non-partisan and a long-sighted approach by the government. While the welfare gains cannot be denied, the PTI government can also make political strides by establishing an accountability relationship with its voters (through efficient handling of this initiative). However, that can only be done if the money is spent on all citizens regardless of political affiliations. It is the state’s responsibility to take care of all Pakistanis. This is no rocket science. Islamabad should do all due diligence to ensure its masterstroke of empathy is executed with just the right will and resources.