Social protection

March 21, 2021

The constitution of Pakistan ensures the wellbeing and security of the poor, the marginalised, women and minorities as a basic human right

Prime Minister Imran Khan, in his maiden speech after assuming the office, in August 2018 promised to transform Pakistan into a true Islamic welfare state, making poverty alleviation a top priority of his government. Making Pakistan a welfare state is not a new idea. The founding father of the country, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, wanted the new state to be a welfare state with justice, equality and fair play. “If we want to make this great State of Pakistan happy and prosperous we should wholly and solely concentrate on the well-being of the people and especially of the masses and the poor,” he said in his famous address of August 11, 1947 to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan.

Pakistan has a history of social protection policies and programmes for the poor and the margnalised. In 1965, the government of Pakistan promulgated the provincial Employees’ Social Security Scheme (PSSS) Ordinance which is considered the first social protection measure in Pakistan. This scheme provided cash allowances and medical services to public sector employees. In the 1970s, during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s regime, the government introduced several social protection schemes including the Workers’ Children Education Ordinance, Workers’ Welfare Fund Scheme and the Employee’s Old Age Benefit Institution (EOBI). In 1980s, Gen Zia’s regime promulgated and implemented the Zakat and Ushr Ordinance for the poor and marginalised segments of society. In 1992, Bait-ul-Mal was established to provide financial support to the deserving poor, especially the minorities, who were not served by Zakat. In 2008, the federal government introduced the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) and in 2020 the Ehsaas Programme.

Some experts say the social protection schemes in Pakistan have weak institutional structures, limited funding, ineffective targetting and low coverage. “The programme coverage of all the social protection schemes is low; therefore, the impact of social protection measures in Pakistan is very limited,” says Professor Syeda Mahnaz from the Punjab University. In all social safety net schemes like Zakat, the BISP and Bait-ul- Mal, lack of targetting is the major problem. Professor Mahnaz claims, “Most of these schemes exclude women workers, minorities, trans-genders and people with special needs from these programmes”. A 2007 World Bank report on social protection programmes of Pakistan says that 37 percent of the beneficiaries receiving rehabilitation were not poor. The report also documented evidence of embezzlement and nepotism in the Zakat delivery system.

The Ehsaas program has been performing well during the Covid-19 pandemic to support the poor and marginalised segments of society.

Targeting is not the only issue with social protection schemes in Pakistan. Dr Abid Suleri, head of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, says there is another huge problem with social protection schemes in Pakistan: “They are portrayed as a favour extended by state or government rather than a right of citizens and workers. We see successive governments publicise these schemes heavily in the media but there actual outreach is limited as it is done for political gains rather than effective targetting”. The BISP and Ehsaas Programme have made significant achievements as more than five million deserving families received the support through cash transfer. The Ehsaas Programme has done well during the Covid-19 pandemic to support the poor and marginalised segments of society. According to recent data, around 29.90 percent of the 2014-15 poor in Pakistan are covered under social protection programmes.

The Constitution of Pakistan promises the wellbeing and security of the poor, the marginalised, women and minorities as a basic human right. Tahira Abdullah, an Islamabad-based human right activist, says “the first 40 sections of the Constitution of Pakistan cover fundamental rights and principles of policy. They ensure rights of the poor, minorities, the marginalised and children and talk about affirmative action to ensure all these rights. Article 38 of the Constitution of Pakistan 1973 clearly provides under the head of Promotion of Social and Economic Well-being of the People.”

The Supreme Court of Pakistan, in a landmark judgment on June 19, 2014, in a suo motu notice called for protection of minorities and freedom of religion. The notice was taken following the Peshawar church attack and covered problems faced by the Hindu community, including forced conversions and attacks on their temples. Tahira Abdullah says, “It is not a decision but an order for the parliament and the Executive to take specific steps to ensure well-being and safety of minorities in Pakistan. An implementation commission was also constituted under the decision. But the situation in the seventh year since the court directive is still fairly the same as it has always been. The 2014 judgment of then Chief Justice Tassaduq Jilani lays the foundation for the realisation of religious minorities’ rights. If this basic benchmark cannot be implemented then the state’s claims concerning the protection of minority rights seem meaningless.”

The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist, researcher and media trainer. A former Daniel Pearl/AFPP fellow, he shared in The LA Times’ 2016 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. He tweets @AounSahi

Social protection