Between austerity and welfare

Published: July 8, 2019
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Say what you will, you cannot deny that Prime Minister Imran Khan is a man of vision. Whether that vision is viable or merely a pipe dream is another matter altogether. Take his recent announcement of the National Poverty Graduation Initiative (NPGI) – the latest addition to the Ehsas Programme, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s grand solution to turn Pakistan into a Madina-like welfare state. Through the new Rs42.65 billion initiative, Prime Minister Imran hopes to steer the poorest Pakistani households out of poverty. The scheme envisions a series of interest-free loans, assets transfers and vocational training programmes to empower the poor to change their fortunes.

So far so good. The NPGI may not be a lot for now, but one cannot say the sentiment at least is not noble. But where does the Prime Minister hope to generate funds for so ambitious an initiative? In the same speech in which Prime Minister Imran announced the NPGI, he also announced his government’s plans to divert money from the sale of benami assets into the Ehsas Programme initiatives. To further incentivise the discovery of such assets, the prime minister announced a seven per cent increase in reward money for whistleblowers.

There is, of course, one small potential problem with this ambitious scheme. The entire Ehsas Programme rests on the assumption that illegally-accumulated wealth and assets in Pakistan will be enough to lift the country’s ever-growing poor populace out of poverty. At the same time, nowhere within the Ehsas framework has the PTI government so far outlined a comprehensive plan to create new jobs in Pakistan. On the contrary, thanks to its backbreaking austerity drive, the country’s middle and low-income classes are already feeling the pinch.

Established enterprises are reacting to the pressure from the drive by contracting their operations, laying off some people here and shaving wages there. None of them, for now, provide any hope for new employment opportunities.

Here’s hoping the Ehsas Programme takes off, because a lot more people may be needing it very soon.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 08th, 2019.

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