Sunday September 26, 2021

Who stands excluded?

April 15, 2020

Worldwide, a social protection response to the pandemic lockdown, has widely taken the form of social assistance in the form of cash transfers including up to 124 programs across 71 countries.

Pakistan’s Ehsaas Emergency Cash Programme is one such example. Announced two weeks ago, disbursement under the programme began last week for the first tier of recipients: the 4.5 million women (and households) enrolled on the Kafalat programme.

The programme will then reach out to include a further four million people identified through the NSER under a relaxed poverty threshold. The final tier will reach an estimated 3.5 million through district lists. For this final category, the federal government will base eligibility on information from the taxpayer’s database as well records on vehicle registration and international travel. The cross referencing of existing databases under NADRA, National Socioeconomic Register (NSER) and the federal and provincial governments is considered a step to limit the number of non-eligible households from gaining access to the emergency grant.

The scheme also overcomes the potential issue of how to reach the unbanked population (an estimated 100 million adults in 2018) by handing cash over at an estimated 18,000 points of sale operated under regulations to maintain social distancing. So far so good, and it is quite good, and the work being done by the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) and Ehsaas teams is laudable.

However, and there will always be a however when there is no wide-ranging system of social protection, there are groups of people who are already being excluded and there will be those who will inadvertently fall into the cracks (errors of exclusion). It’s worth considering both these groups to enable the transfer system to be fine-tuned with time, particularly since the exit period for lockdown (as well as the chances of a second round of infections) remains a grey area for governments world over.

The entire system of Ehsaas pivots on one crucial feature: the possession of a CNIC by any member of a household. While this is likely to not be a problem for the of proportions population who have been able to be surveyed by nationwide registration attempts undertaken for BISP and later Ehsaas (though interrupted due to the pandemic), it is a severe problem for populations such as the Hazaras and the Bengalis who have for decades faced discrimination and ‘delays’ in processing civil registration documents.

Hazaras have been fatally attacked standing in queues outside NADRA offices in Quetta in the past and the sizable populations of ethnic Bengalis residing in Karachi for decades have their applications rejected by NADRA on the basis of being aliens. Both groups have a significant proportion of daily wage workers amongst them, an occupational label that has been the first in line to suffer economically from the lockdown. It is unclear how the emergency cash transfer will be able to include them in the state-citizen contract being reified in some manner by the Ehsaas programme.

CNICs will also pose a problem for women in the population whose husbands were the only ones who possessed CNICs and have died while their death has not been registered with NADRA by the wife or children for various reason such as distance to nearest NADRA office, issues of literacy, lack of knowledge around registration process and associated costs.

Questions flooding in on the Ehsaas, BISP and Sania Nishtar’s social media accounts have brought forward cases of just such households. The response has required families to register the death with NADRA but it remains unclear how this registration can occur while social distancing remains in place and travel is restricted between different areas.

One final category of people who are likely to fall through the cracks are daily wage and/informal workers who may own one vehicle and those who travelled overseas or across cities for work as labourers. An asset such as a motorcycle bought a few years ago does not necessarily place the owner into a non-vulnerable category. An estimated 18 million more people were likely to be in poverty by June 2020 compared to June 2018. And that estimate – calculated by economist Hafiz A Pasha – did not include the effect of the pandemic lockdown the workforce is undergoing.

Similarly, migrant manual labourers such as the 10,000 in the UAE who have lost their jobs and have requested repatriation to Pakistan, will be sidelined by the wealth criteria deployed by the Ehsaas system. For internal migrants, the issue is more complex as the district where they have registered their CNIC is unlikely to be the same as the city where they have travelled to seek work.

They will be unable to return to their hometown if travel restrictions hold, or will travel back increasing the risk of transmission en route. It is unclear how such eligible CNIC-holders will be able to collect their emergency cash where they are in lockdown and whether districts within and across provinces will be able to communicate to remedy this gap.

Apart from the claims the above categories of citizens can and should make on the Pakistani state, particularly in times such as these, sidelining different members of a demobilized, hungry and slowly impoverishing workforce over a period of time will make for fractious summer months ahead.

Twitter: @MoizzaBSarwar