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The Covid-19 has posed numerous challenges for the world. One of those challenges was to decide whether to go for a complete, partial, or no lockdown to counter the spread of coronavirus. This particular challenge has been more serious for the under developing countries like Pakistan as they had to weigh the economic consequences of a lockdown and health concerns of remaining open. Pakistan has resorted to end the lockdown pre-maturely citing many economic challenges. One of the biggest challenges during the lockdown period was to feed the poor people. To fight that challenge, the Pakistani Government initiated an Ehsaas program with cash disbursement of 144 billion PKR to the most vulnerable segments of the society. This was a good initiative by the government that aimed to protect the poor people. However, the cash disbursement mechanism has come under the spotlight for at least two reasons.

Firstly, it has been very difficult for the Government to identify the daily wagers, laborers, unregistered workers, and people working in the informal sectors that have been affected due to the lockdown. Most of the beneficiaries of the Ehsaas program have been those that were in the government database before the Covid-19 episode. It was operationally very difficult for the Government to update the database by receiving the SMS and verifying the credentials of the deserving people amid the lockdown. The internal migration of people, especially in the last decade or so - partly due to the war on terror - has further exacerbated the situation since the internally displaced persons (IDPs) have spread all over the country. Many of those IDPs work in informal sectors as laborers and daily wagers in different parts of the country and would still have their permanent address in their native areas. This makes it very difficult for the Government to gather the data on such persons that have been severely impacted due to lockdown.

Secondly, the mechanism of disbursing the cash payments has been contrary to the very essence of the preventive measures suggested by the health authorities of the country and the World Health Organization (WHO). The biometric identification and disbursement of cash pose a great risk of spreading the Coronavirus. Moreover, the process itself attracts large public gatherings defying the government’s own imposed social distancing measures.

However, this represents a great opportunity for the country to prepare itself for the future. To that end, the government should start collecting the data of every citizen along with their current address and GPS locations. As soon as someone moves to a new location within the country, the head of the family should be responsible to fill in the registration form and update their address in the national database, which can be linked with the existing NADRA database. This can be done through a simple verifiable paper form to be filled in or an online form. It is up to the concerned authorities to set the modalities but this would be an important step to formalize the internal movement of people in the country. Moreover, this data should be linked to the bank account number of each citizen. The Government should only pay to the beneficiary’s bank account, which will be a more respectful way to pay to the already neglected segment of the society. This will also help to minimize the exploitation of the recipients and manipulation of the funds. Moreover, such a database will facilitate the ration distribution to the needy people at their doorstep should such need arise in the future.
This will also be an important step towards the financial inclusion of a larger population in the country. According to the World Bank survey in 2017, the ratio of financial inclusion in Pakistan stands at 21%, which is the lowest among the South Asian countries. Financial inclusion is thought to be crucial for poverty reduction and achieving inclusive economic growth in the country. This whole process of financial inclusion can also catalyze the documentation and digitalization of the economy.

This is a high time to invest in such a national database which could include the information on education, nature of employment, income level, mother tongue, and ethnicity, etc. of all the citizens and residents of Pakistan. The public hospitals can be given partial access to this database and therefore a medical history of each citizen can also be maintained. This would allow researching various health and social issues in Pakistan that has often been ignored in the past. This would also facilitate research in the internal migration trends and would help us in urban planning issues. The databases hold the key for the government to devise appropriate policies and set up a program for the most vulnerable people in particular and the country in general. Let us hope that we grab this opportunity in adversity.

This article has been written by Syed MujahidHussain. The author holds a Ph.D. in Economics and currently works as an Assistant Professor at the College of Economics and Political Science of Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat, Oman.