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The Express Tribune Editorial 19 June 2020

Punjab, Sindh budgets

Punjab and Sindh presented their budgets this week. Punjab’s total outlay was Rs2.24 trillion, backed by a 13% improvement in provincial tax collection. The province is also providing a Rs56 billion tax relief to businesses to help cope with Covid-19. Tax rates on over 20 services would be cut from the present 16% to just 5%. These include smaller hotels, wedding halls, catering, IT services, tour operators, gyms, property dealers, and car rental services. Sales tax on health insurance, doctor’s fees and hospital fees are also being slashed. In an interesting effort to digitise the economy, the Punjab government is proposing maintaining the 16% sales tax on restaurants and beauty parlours for cash payments, but cutting it to 5% for electronic payments. The development budget has been set at Rs337 billion, and sales tax for public-private partnerships has been cut to zero for five years to attract investment. The education budget is Rs391 billion, and the health budget is Rs284 billion, which includes Rs13 billion for Covid-19 pandemic response.
The Sindh government, meanwhile, prioritised the health sector in its Rs1.24 trillion deficit budget. No new taxes have been added, and government salaries have risen by up to 10%. Some 1,414 new government employees will also be hired. The development budget has been set at Rs232.9 billion, down 18% from last year. The increase in non-development spending was attributed to ‘Covid-related pro-poor’ social protection and economic sustainability spending of Rs34.2 billion, a Rs19 billion rise in health spending, and an additional Rs22.9 billion for education. One of the other positives was a Health Risk Allowance equal to one month’s basic pay for all health personnel, including postgraduate and house job officers, who have been working on Covid-19 patients.
While both budgets for the country’s two richest provinces have their strengths and weaknesses, it is clear that one focuses on economic recovery from Covid-19, and the other on saving lives.


Digital birth registration


Maintaining proper records of births is necessary for effective planning in order to ensure provision of facilities to citizens, particularly to children. Launched in 2017 by the Sindh government, in collaboration with Unicef, more than 500,000 children have so far been registered under the digital birth registration programme in the province. A government official informed media-persons that the programme was piloted in Thatta, and later extended to Badin, Naushero Feroze and Karachi.
The initiative is aimed at ensuring, facilitating and expediting the registration of children at the time of birth, especially in rural areas. The main purpose of the whole exercise is to safeguard children’s fundamental rights. The programmes is claimed to have greatly helped in the registration of newborns with Nadra with the help of union councils. The programme has, reportedly, also helped with collection of data and facilitates citizens’ access to records. Now the government is setting up desks for registration under the project at hospitals.
The significance of digital registration of births can be gauged from the fact that it facilitates citizens at all stages of life, most importantly recognition of identity at the official level. Encouraged by the success of the programme, the provincial government plans to extend it to the entire province. It has also announced the launch of a mobile registration system for registering the birth of babies at their homes during the coronavirus pandemic. This will help citizens in the birth registration process at a time when the long-persisting pandemic has restricted people’s physical movement.
The initiative will help in several ways both the citizens and the government. As it ensures children’s identity, they will encounter no problems in obtaining the national identity card, the most important document to get rights as citizens. The right to get the national identity card enables people to get their other rights as citizens.


The number game


The Finance Bill is in the National Assembly. What more opportune time than this could it be for the government’s coalition partners to press for their (fair and unfair) demands? Prime Minster Imran Khan’s recent two-day visit to Karachi seems to have come in the same context — further necessitated by the withdrawal of the BNP-M, which has four seats in the National Assembly, from the ruling coalition. In Karachi, the PM met MQM and other allied parties and reiterated his commitment to their “common goal of improving public service” — in what may be interpreted as his reassurance on meeting their demands. So political was his visit that the PM could not find time to meet Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah or any notable representative of his government even when the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic has assumed frightening proportions in the provinces, just as in other parts of the country.
Meanwhile, the BNP-M’s exit has reduced the PTI-led ruling coalition’s strength in the National Assembly to 180 seats — just eight more than the simple majority needed to keep control of the 342-strong house. The PTI is, thus, in a relatively comfortable position, provided it keeps its all other allies happy, including MQM having 7 seats, PML-Q (5) BAP (5), Independents (2) GDA (3), AML (1) and JWP (1). The last-mentioned party has also expressed its reservations and threatened to go the BNP-M’s way in case these reservations are not addressed.
The BNP-M’s withdrawal from the ruling coalition, however, did not come all of a sudden. Twice earlier — in June 2019 and October 2019 — had the party chief, Sardar Akhtar Mengal, had reminded the PM over their six unmet demands, including: recovery of missing persons; implementation on the National Action Plan; allocation of 6% quota for Balochistan in federal government jobs; immediate repatriation of Afghan refugees; and construction of dams in the province to resolve the acute water crisis.
While the PM may not, unfortunately, be able to even pursue an item or two in the mentioned list of demands, he could immediately start off on a few others to win the BNP-M trust and bring it back to the fold of the ruling collation and provide it the much-needed numerical stability.
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