Last year, when Sania Nishtar was appointed as chairperson of the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), I welcomed the decision because she was the first apolitical person to head the organization. And being an apolitical person, I expected a clean-up of the accumulated muck in an organization that was supposedly to benefit of the poor, but has rather disproportionately benefitted blue-eyed consultants, bureaucracy and political affiliates.
The revelation last week that more than 800,000 BISP beneficiaries on government dole were undeserving raised hue and cry, all of it unnecessary and misdirected. To me it came as no surprise. This is the first major clean up act under Sania Nishtar, and it hopefully will not be the last one.
How did these beneficiaries manage to get into the system in the first place? The answer will bring to fore some deeper issues that the present chairperson must address if the direction is to be set right.
It began with the dubious decision in 2008 to let MNAs and MPAs identify the poor in their areas. This was primarily a move to benefit political affiliates and party workers. The situation was such that it was not uncommon for us to hear tales from BISP field staff of people coming in cars to collect money! Not surprisingly, when a comparatively credible survey was carried out later in 2011, it was found that hardly 20 percent of the total beneficiaries getting taxpayer financed hand outs could really be categorized as ‘poor.’ By that time, more than Rs50 billion had been wasted.
The first signs of concern appeared in 2015 when it was found that 127,000 individuals getting money from BISP were not its beneficiaries
A startling question then arises: if a proper survey was carried out based on the renowned, widely used methodology (PMT), how did such a large number of non-deserving beneficiaries manage to enter the system? The answer to this puzzle can be traced to the first chairperson of BISP and one of her favourite consultants (among the many cronies that made merry under her reign).
The first signs of concern appeared in 2015 when it was found that 127,000 individuals getting money from BISP were not its beneficiaries. Put another way, they were fake beneficiaries inserted into the system. Initial estimates carried out by federal audit suggested that the loss was Rs7 billion or more. But the issue, along with others, was quickly brushed under the carpet until the recent revelations.
So how did they manage to get in? The first chairperson had her favourite cronies who would carry out her orders obediently. They were, in turn, rewarded with posts and lush pay packages unbecoming of their experience and qualification. One of her special cronies, a research associate on deputation from finance division, was made director and handed over the complex task of overseeing the survey. Just imagine the fact that an exercise of the magnitude of a national census was handed over to a person who barely had three years of practical experience at a beginner level and lacking any qualification whatsoever in terms of handling such matters.
The story of how the whole exercise was compromised is a long one. But it would suffice to state here that everything was done to facilitate political favours. Through the time the survey was under way, it was common knowledge within BISP that the ruling party’s parliamentarians were acquainted with how to bypass the criteria and get selected, knowledge that was then passed on to selected families. The end result of this has only been revealed now in the form of undeserving beneficiaries, after wasting billions of rupees from national kitty.
It is not that the possibility of undeserving and fake beneficiaries entering the system was not pointed out within BISP. Before the revelation of 127,000 fake beneficiaries, a few employees from the complaint cell had suggested immediate remedial measures to circumvent misuse. But they were told to mind their business.
This issue of undeserving beneficiaries is just the tip of the iceberg in a badly mismanaged organization that has spent Rs650 billion or more from the national kitty. In 2013, the evidence of widespread mismanagement in BISP landed on the desk of the then chief justice of Pakistan. Alarmed at what lay before him, he immediately ordered the country’s top investigation agency to inquire into these matters. After more than three years, the agency quietly closed the inquiry without even following its own SOPs. During the proceedings of a petition against the closure of that inquiry, the high court was astounded to learn that of the more than 15 points ordered to be inquired, hardly five were looked at.
In the end, the prosecutor of the agency presented a specific reference number pertaining to the first chairperson, promising the court that the reference would be filed soon. More than a year and a half has passed, but the promised reference has never been filed. The person in question, meanwhile, cools her heels in a foreign country. To put things in perspective, she was earlier dismissed from Printing Corporation on charges of corruption, long before becoming chairperson.
While Sania Nishtar’s efforts are laudable, she still faces some formidable challenges. Perhaps none is more formidable than federal secretaries and other bureaucrats that do their best to protect the former and present mismanagement. Similarly, some consultants have managed to avoid scrutiny. One was mentioned above. There are, however, others. For example, there are some who have extracted illegal benefits in return for helping organizations bag large tenders from BISP.
Taking off undeserving beneficiaries has got nothing to do with politics. It was long overdue. Sania Nishtar’s efforts are laudable. But there are still challenges that she must address. For that, she will have to stamp her authority forcefully.
The writer is an economist