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A move to reduce poverty

THE launch of a poverty-alleviation programme under the banner of Ehsas (compassion) has caused a flutter in millions of hearts in the country because poverty deprives a very large segment of the population of Pakistan the joys of living.

Incidentally, the people’s deliverance from poverty has always been accepted as one of their basic rights, a right that cannot be defined in terms of a voluntary gesture, even if that gesture enjoys as high a value as compassion does. The discourse on poverty eradication, and not merely poverty alleviation, must be conducted in the idiom of rights.

A certain lack of clarity about Ehsas makes it necessary to ensure that what sparkles in the hands of the prime minister is gold and not tinsel.

It is necessary to ensure that what sparkles in the hands of the prime minister is gold and not tinsel.

The government intends to shift the pledges made in Article 38 (d) from the ‘Principles of Policy’ to the ‘Fundamental Rights’ chapter. That should enable the citizens to secure through courts four basic necessities of life: food, clothing, housing and medical relief. (Education is also mentioned in this clause, but the right to education has already been recognised under the 18th Amendment.)

However, 38 (d) is one of the seven clauses of Article 38 that carries the caption ‘Promotion of social and economic well-being of the people’. There is no bar to the transfer of a single clause of Article 38 to the fundamental rights chapter but it is necessary to understand the priorities fixed in the relevant article.

The first clause 38 (a) covers a broad area. It calls for “preventing the concentration of wealth and means of production and distribution in the hands of a few” and for ensuring “equitable adjustment of rights between employers and employees and landlords and tenants”.

Under the second clause, 38(b), the state is obliged to “provide for all citizens, within the available resources of the country, facilities for work and adequate livelihood with reasonable rest and leisure.”

Clause 38 (c) obliges the state to guarantee social security for all employees in both public and private sectors. Clause 38 (e) calls for “reduction in disparity in the income and earnings of individuals,” while 38 (f) seeks elimination of “riba as early as possible”.

Finally, 38 (g), inserted by the 18th Amendment, says that “the shares of the provinces in all federal services, including autonomous bodies and corporations… shall be secured and any omission… in the past shall be rectified”.

A plain reading of Article 38 shows that the state shall establish an order in which the right to work will be available to the largest possible number of citizens. The state shall protect the rights of employees and tenants and all employees shall enjoy social security. The number of people in need of a safety net under Article 38 (d) will be greatly reduced.

If the socioeconomic order envisaged by Articles 37 and 38 of the Constitution is not created, the number of citizens seeking relief under Article 38 (d) will be too huge and the cost too high to be met by any government. This clause offers relief only to those who cannot earn their livelihood on account of “infirmity, sickness or unemployment.” This is in accord with the general theory of creating a safety net for those who are unable to benefit from the opportunities a welfare state offers.

The mere transfer of a provision from the ‘Principles of Policy’ to ‘Fundamental Rights’ is no guarantee of that right becoming available in practice. Nine years have passed since the state assumed the responsibility to provide free and compulsory education to all children from ages five to 16 years. It cannot escape censure for failing to fully implement Article 25-A.

The government plans to complete by December a survey to identify the poor and poverty-stricken areas. A proper comment on this proposal must wait till its details become clearer. But poverty is not a new subject in public debate. The government should be aware of the studies on poverty alleviation done by national and international institutions and Pakistan’s leading economists. That eradication of poverty means removal of inequalities caused by domicile, belief and gender distinctions is now accepted as a fundamental reality. The country needs to reduce inequalities to an extent that even the hindmost are able to enjoy an adequate livelihood.

The prime minister’s offer of relief to transgender citizens, street children, bonded and daily wage labourers, along with allotment of land for opening shops and cafés, etc, can only be welcomed. This could lead to a shift from dependence on dole to earned livelihoods.

Also welcome are plans to provide mobile phones to 5.7 million women and help them maintain accounts in banks. One hopes the essential factor in the Bangladesh schemes of women’s empowerment — namely, the provision of work for girls — will not be ignored.

One should also like to withhold judgement on the flashes of rhetoric until one hears more form Dr Sania Nishtar, the chairperson of the Poverty Alleviation Coordination Council, who has the reputation of carrying a sound head on her shoulders. She should be able to convince the powers that be that no government can create a greater hazard for itself than leaving unrealised the people’s expectations it has aroused.

During the launch of Ehsas programme, some PTI circles called for changing the name of the Benazir Income Support Programme, which smacked of petty-minded partisanship. The government has done well by deciding not to change the BISP name. Changing names of cities, institutions and projects is contrary to the liberal traditions of the subcontinent’s Muslims.

The new Dow Medical University is being built on a plot donated for a health facility by a non-Muslim landlord, Deepchand Ojha, before Independence. If the authorities fail to honour the memory of the benefacto,r they will only confirm themselves as small, ungrateful men.

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