The most seriously affected by the lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the poor, had to wait until yesterday for the start of the disbursement under the Ehsaas Emergency Relief Programme. This was the Rs144 billion component of the Rs1.2 trillion relief package announced earlier. There is virtually zero prospect of export in a world already in deep recession, and of rejuvenating a sick domestic industry, but the payment of tax refunds out of the allocated Rs100 billion started well before. There are, according to the Prime Minister, 50 million people below the poverty line. The cash assistance is meant for those already below the poverty line and others, mostly daily wage earners and piece rate workers, that have been pushed into poverty by the measures to enforce social distancing. This is a huge number, but by no means exhausts the real extent of the misery caused by the spread of the deadly virus. Some 35 million requests have been received through text messages from those in urgent need of cash assistance. Only 12 million, will get Rs12,000 each for a four-month subsistence. Out of these, the first lot of 2.3 million should, hopefully, have received their cheques by now. For the remaining 9.7 million, there is a wait-and-see period of another two and a half weeks.
But wait a minute. The allocation of Rs144 billion was not new. It had already been provided for the Benazir Income Support Programme in this year’s budget. As is often the case with social sector programmes, it was suffering from slow releases. Around five million recipients were already being paid a stipend at the existing rate. Another five million were also in the database, who were eligible but not yet getting the stipends due to the slow release of funds or who would qualify now under the somewhat relaxed criteria. If the money was released quickly, these 10 million or so could have been sent their cheques within two days of the announcement or even before as no new budget allocation was necessary. So the first lot of 2.3 million seems to be the enhanced stipends for the existing recipients.
The delay is happening because the poor have to be eligible, even during a pandemic. No questions will be asked if you invest billions in the construction sector. But to receive Rs12,000 to survive in a pandemic for no fault of your own, you have to satisfy some criteria. The senders of 35 million text messages are being messaged back in labels — eligible, ineligible, or contact district administration. Only the eligible will receive a follow-up SMS as to where and when they get the money. Who is eligible is being decided, according to the Prime Minister’s point woman on social protection, “through proper scrutinising mechanisms like data analytics, wealth profiling, average monthly bills, and travel history.” Those fortunate to be declared eligible will still require biometric verification before they can be paid. None of that for construction barons and tax rebate claimants.
Supposing the 35 million sending text messages were all given Rs12,000 each instantly, no questions asked, the amount will be a mere Rs420 billion. The attention from the Rs200 billion kept for industrialists in the vain hope that it will be used to protect labour and the needlessly awarded Rs100 billion in rebates, has been diverted to the campaign against the sugar daddies. Redirecting these sums to Ehsaas would have spared the poor from experiencing the indignity that was witnessed in the distribution of rations by the government and citizens.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 10th, 2020.
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