The federal cabinet approved a support plan for the
poor on the 18th of this month. Just how ill-conceived was the programme
is evident from the fact that even the figures just don't match- you
don't have to be a genius to calculate that Rs 2,500 financial
assistance to 2.5 million families a year totals Rs 6.25 billion and not
Rs 5 billion as announced by the federal information minister Shaikh
Rasheed and Prime Minister's advisor on Finance Shaukat Aziz jointly.
The plan patronizingly called 'Prime Minister's
Falahi (Welfare) Programme' seems to be driven more by political
expediency than human compassion on the part of the top policy makers.
In fact, it has been a great disappointment bordering on insulting the
intelligence of the people as Rs 2,500 disbursed over a period of a year
translates into just over Rs 200 a month. Two hundred rupees, as we all
know, can hardly buy 20 kilos of wheat flour and just about 4 kilos of
cheapest shortening available in the market.
The Rs 5 billion package did make a good press to
help the government extract an immense political mileage but Rs 7 a day
financial assistance not make any difference to 2.5 million families,
the intended beneficiaries. Just imagine stretching $ 3.50 over 30 days
amidst incessant increase in essentials, forget about cost of living,
Instead of wasting precious governmental funds,
energies and time to altogether suppress or mitigate the truth about
drastic increase in poverty the policy makers should be better off to
tackle the problem head-on. It is not that the government itself is
unaware of the limitations of the programme evident from federal
Information Minister Shaikh Rashid Ahmad's pre-emptive comment at the
press briefing at which he announced the scheme, "It is better to
give the poors something than not to give them anything at all."
That may be right but what can justify the decision by the Punjab
Government to lavishly spend 60 brand new cars at Rs 1.2 million a piece
costing the exchequers a cool Rs 72 million so that ministers and other
elected representatives of this poor nation can travel in style.
The scheme is also extremely limited in scope as
financial assistance, meaningless as it is, will only benefit a very
small numbers of people in a country where 35-40 per cent of the
population is living in absolute poverty. It will only provide
negligible assistance to only 2.5 million families, or 15 million people
as Mr. Ahmad and Mr. Aziz had proudly pointed out at the briefing, in a
country reeking from grave economic inequalities. In a country where
half or 72 million of the population in poverty, around or over 40
million of them living in sub-human conditions.
The scheme is thus extremely limited in scope to
alleviate poverty or to even lessen its blow. A financial assistance of
$ 3.50 cannot even buy enough wheat flour to feed a family of six for a
month, as the information minister and finance advisor had so diligently
calculated to highlight the magnitude of the scheme.
The scheme is a typically Pakistani way to shut up
the 'cynics' who have been expecting that the re-dawn of democracy in
the country should benefit the common man. In last three years the
prices of petroleum, utilities and essentials have risen substantially
to a point where even the rupee has shed substantial purchasing power.
The pattern of income distribution and tax have become even more
inequitable over the years.
According to Pakistan Human conditions Report 2002
published by Centre for Research on Poverty Reduction and Income
Distribution 20 per cent of the rich are sharing 50 per cent of the
income while 20 per cent of poor at the bottom of the rung were getting
just 6 per cent of the income in Pakistan.
Not only the rich have registered a significant
increase in their income but they are also paying lesser taxes than the
poor. The tax burden tilts heavily in favour of the rich while the poor
are burdened with higher taxation. The tax burden has registered an
increase of 4 per cent for the lowest income group while it has
magnanimously registered a sharp decline of 21 per cent for the high
income segment of the society. The situation has become worsened by the
withdrawal of subsidies on such essentials as wheat flour and power due
to IMF conditionalities.
The unjust income distribution and the inequitable
taxation have immensely burdened the middle and low-income groups while
it has provided an undue relief for those who don't really deserve it.
The most terrifying aspect of the indicators is that it proves that the
rich have benefited at the cost of the poor.
The incidence of poverty has reached an epidemic
level in Pakistan and thus can hardly be solved by half-baked schemes
such as the one announced with a fanfare recently. Poverty can hardly be
alleviated through such meager financial handouts. It requires serious
plans to make the income distribution and taxation more equity and by
creating new jobs. Cutting the heavy administrative expenses and culture
of unnatural opulence at the cost of the poor would also help.