EVER SINCE Covid-19 cases broke out in the country in February last year, the State Bank has implemented several actions to encourage digital payments and reduce the use of cash transactions. Starting from the suspension of the fee charged by banks on interbank fund transfers, the bank recently launched a new instant real-payment system, Raast, which connects banks and digital wallets as a first step towards a digital economy. Pakistan has joined the list of 56 countries that have developed instant real-time payment schemes. Raast will be used initially for the payment of dividends, pension and Ehsaas disbursements to destitute women. Besides, the Roshan Digital Account initiative for overseas Pakistanis is not only facilitating them in opening accounts and investing in the stock market and real estate schemes digitally from their countries of residence but also shoring up much-needed foreign exchange flows into the country.
Now the State Bank has instructed banks to issue only Euro-pay MasterCard Visa (EMV) chip- and PIN-compliant payment cards, which will become active for making payments and online e-commerce services the day the customers receive them. Banks have been given until end June to make arrangements for issuing EMV cards, which will make cashless payments more secure and easier through the introduction of new features. This will also allow consumers to make loan repayments through cards and lodge complaints through digital channels without the need to visit a bank branch. The measure aims at strengthening the security of digital payments and curtailing fraud risk. The new measure is expected to promote the e-commerce ecosystem and shape consumer behaviour in favour of online payments, according to the State Bank. Earlier in 2019, it had instructed banks to adopt a 3-D secure protocol to prevent online fraudulent transactions. As many as 15 banks have so far adopted this standard for securing online transactions. The measures taken so far to promote digital payments are a positive step towards a digital economy, which is easier to document and tax. But the goal of cashless and digital payments will not materialise unless more people are connected to banking channels and the government allows tax incentives to consumers and businesses making digital transactions. Additionally, the government needs to ensure that internet service providers and telecom firms improve their services and extend it to those living in remote areas so that more people can take advantage of the measures being executed to promote a digital economy.
THE recent round of by-elections have thrown up quite a few surprises. They have also generated controversy over mismanagement and suspected rigging in at least one seat for the National Assembly. The PTI government is putting up a brave face but in many ways these elections have exposed a few chinks in the PTI armour. The polls in Sindh showed that the PPP retains its hold on the province and the last two years have not diluted its support among the voters. This was evidenced not just by the PPP’s victory in both the provincial assembly victories but also the impressive margin with which the party won. Also noteworthy is the fact that the runner-up in the Malir seat PS-88 was not from PTI but the TLP.
In Punjab, however, it was a straight fight between the PML-N and PTI. The two seats, NA-75 Daska and PP-51 Wazirabad, were won by the PML-N in the 2018 elections. While the PML-N has been able to retain the provincial seat, the ECP has held back the result of the Daska seat because of alleged irregularities. The ECP has, in fact, issued a strongly worded press release that is, for all practical purposes, an indictment of the Punjab government. PML-N leader Maryam Nawaz Sharif has accused the PTI government of indulging in blatant rigging while the PTI claims it has won the contest fair and square. The ECP has taken the correct stance by stating unequivocally that at 20 polling stations they suspect results may have been tampered with. The ECP also goes on to say that this entire affair seems to be a result of weakness showed by administrative and law-enforcement institutions. The government of Punjab must take this concern by the ECP seriously because it reflects adversely on the ability of the government to provide the support that the ECP requires by law in order to organise free and fair polls. It is important for the ECP to get to the bottom of this controversy and identify those responsible so that citizens’ confidence in elections is not impacted.
The biggest blow for the PTI has come in KP, the province that it considers its fortress. The Nowshera provincial assembly seat won by the party in 2018 has now gone to the PML-N candidate. This should be a wake-up call for the PTI which has been claiming that the opposition has lost ground since the last elections. These by-elections may not provide a full picture of what the electorate is thinking but it does give a peek into the prevalent mood. This mood is not going in favour of the ruling party. The PTI may need to do some soul searching in order to figure out why there is such a gap between what it says and the reality on the ground.