Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Benazir Income Support Program: A Mega Rip-Off

June 5, 2012
By Saeed Qureshi
In  Pakistan’s budget for the year 2012, the government has allocated 70 billion rupees for the much-touted Benazir Income Support Program(BISP). In dollars it comes to 800 million. Thus far this  program that was kicked off in 2008 has been allocated some two billion dollars to alleviate the economic hardships of the poor families in Pakistan. It is a staggering amount.
However,  there is a mounting proliferation of complaints from the poor citizens, who have remained deprived of the largesse of the BISP. We have seen numerous footages on the television showing the crowds of the hungry and indigent displaying their cards with blatant grievances that all that they possessed were the cards but not the money. There are also reports about fake and forged lists of the  recipients of this elephantine philanthropic program.
Those who have their names entered into the list of the prospective recipients, throng before the pigeon-holed windows for the state philanthropy. It  takes days for a needy family as well as physical strength to get a paltry sum of Rs. 1000 given to each household. Several individuals are reported to have gone sick and fatigued and injured following the long and arduous physical distress they have to undergo  to catch hold of a check or cash. The cardinal question is what would one buy and sustain in Rs. 1000 pittance that the rich in Pakistan spend on giving tips or on buying a pack or two of cigarettes.
In the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the gulf between the rich and the impoverished citizenry is widening by the day and by every hour. The endemic and grinding poverty that has now become a deep-rooted social evil, was seldom addressed by the successive governments and the elected representatives to be one of the leading monstrous problems in Pakistan. There seldom launched  ground breaking programs and policies for the economic uplift of Pakistan. Conversely, the magnitude of the poor and indigent population is incessantly swelling.

Now a festering sore that bleeds all the time and is turning into gangrene cannot be healed by a bandage but by a composite surgical procedure. The incumbent regime in Pakistan is placing a thin bandage of negligible income support program to eradicate a malady that merits a long term and stupendous plan for its elimination or at least containment.
But ostensibly the motive of the incumbent rulers was not to eliminate poverty or feed the hungry citizens. It was primarily to make huge buck under the cover and guise of a program that on the face should look like an altruistic mission and geared for the betterment of the financially downtrodden populace of Pakistan.
Let us presume that if this year’s Rs 70 billion or the past years several hundred billions would have been channeled on creating jobs by setting up industries and by providing plots of cultivable lands to the resource-less, the endeavor would have been robustly fruitful and looked earnestly pious.
Even if the government intends to spend this huge amount of money on feeding the empty stomachs, then it could have been executed in a transparent and accountable manner. Now a Jialee (feminine of Jiala the nickname by which the diehard adherents of PPP are known)  Madam Farzana Raja is handed over this onerous and gigantic task of dispersing money in such a royal manner then what propitious outcome could be expected.
The commonly prevailing perception of the people of Pakistan about the PPP rank and file from the president to a local party leader is exceedingly adverse.  Now imagine if a fox is guarding the henhouse what would happen to the  poor fowls. Farzana Anwar Raja is one of those female cohorts of the PPP who would break but not leave the party. And she is the chairperson of the BISP.
The so called smart card is used for disbursement of the support money to the identified needy individuals. The smart card is provided only  by three centers in the whole country. The smart card is akin to a credit card with some additional complications. It is utterly impossible for an isolated, unlettered and  unfamiliar village folk to use it and get money. 
The definition of the needy people as outlined in the charter of the program is given as, “poorest people in Pakistan, including families headed by widowed or divorced women, or families with persons with disabilities or chronic disease” Later on the displaced person were also included in this list and with the funds allocation was drastically revised upward.  
It is claimed by the organizers of the BISP that the enrolled families are paid cash assistance of Rs.1000 per month at their doorsteps. It is also claimed by them that in order to further strengthen the transparency, disbursement of monthly cash assistance would now be carried out electronically through branchless banking system.
So instead of door to door disbursement or through the hard-to-follow smart card device, it would be sent into the accounts by electronic transfer. Let us ponder how many recipients could come to the cities , use the smart card and take out money. Or else how many displaced villagers would own a computer to see if the money had been transferred in their accounts. It is like expecting from a new born to read the Bible.
The BISP brochure says that it has “established an elaborate targeting mechanism for identification of the poor through the introduction of Poverty Scorecard and the nationwide survey along with creation of a database accompanied by data validation and verification”.
Notwithstanding the tall claims of the authorities, the bare fact is that this program has remained a non-starter. The two billion dollars could have been utilized on productive and far-reaching projects in order to  transform the lives of the people in real sense and to prop up  prosperity of the country.
Thus instead of radically redressing the economic backwardness of the destitute population, the government is creating a community of compulsive beggars that would be looking towards  this petty relief as long as the government floats this spurious program. The poor people should be made self-reliant and enabled to  generate enough  incomes to live honorably and with a modicum of tolerable living standards.
The example of Bangladesh is instructive where the small loans were made available to the poor families to be paid back from earnings of the cottage and home based industries and  agricultural output. With that novel device not only that the grinding poverty was bridled but a semblance of prosperity and upswing of living standards was also set in motion.
The Grameen Bank founded some 30 years ago, by the  Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus is “credited with lifting millions of people out of poverty through offering small microfinance loans”. This unique concept brought self-reliance to many rural families by enhancing their incomes from small business ventures undertaken mostly by women folks.
The opposition in Pakistan and the parliamentarians, the National Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee  and all patriotic Pakistanis should take note of this disguised mega plunder that is shorn of a foolproof mechanism for preparation of the lists of the indigent Pakistanis as well as deliverance of the support money.
The huge funds being surreptitiously consumed in this patently dubious scam should be diverted to loans to the backward rural population to enable the people to create income through setting up of small manufacturing units. As stated earlier it is already being done in Bangladesh and in several developing countries where growth in productivity and increase in income go hand in hand, elevating the level of prosperity.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan which  is the only reliable vigilante institution, ought to take suo moto notice of this Tsunami of stealth corruption masked by humanitarian relief ploy but which inherently is for self-enrichment of the people in power by robbing the national exchequer.
This farce of beefing up the insufficient earnings of the impoverished families is also a safe way of bribing and cajoling the party office bearers. But more than that it is to keep a vote bank intact especially in the rural Sind in favor of the PPP so that a twin purpose can be achieved: the people vote for the party and keep receiving the charity as long the PPP remains at the helm of power.

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