Poverty and Inequality in Pakistan

Posted on October 23, 2008
Filed Under >Raza Rumi, Society
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Raza Rumi

As I sipped the tenderly brewed coffee facing the lush green golf course of a relatively new Lahore Country Club, the new reality of Pakistan became a little clearer. The sprawling premises of the club were a preserve of the Railways Department until the inefficient Pakistan Railways could not manage it and doled it to the new, oligarchic big business of Pakistan. Much ado was made when the land owned by the Railways was privatised and questionable deals were transacted in that moderately unenlightened era. Nothing came out of the public questioning and today a lavish country club, far removed from its downmarket environs, has sprung out for the affluent and the upwardly-mobile classes of Lahore and Punjab.

The classic barriers to entry created by the cliques that lord over Pakistan’s elite clubs is being undone. Pay a handsome fee now (way over a million rupees) and you are a member to this new “club” built on the ashes of the Raj steelframe, albeit, reminding one of the nasty remarks of Churchill on how the brown, rapacious Rajas would appropriate the space created by the wise and just colonists. As my host elaborated on the entry procedures to Lahore’s richy-rich club, I could not help but remember the compensation to a suicide bomber that has also increased over the years and now hovers between one to two million rupees. A grossly-overlooked fact is that the grinding poverty in the pockets of Pakistan, seemingly unaffected by the consumerist prosperity, is the key to our current turmoil and violence.

At the end of the day, the ideological battles, the foreign interventions and incursions aside, it is all about inequality and the fact that the poverty is now a mushrooming social reality. Apathy to the shameful criminal inequities is another visible trend. Take the new avatars of Pakistan – the media hosts at the leading television channels: the rants and ramblings overly obsess with ideology, of myopia and inward looking gambles. Let Pakistan follow Iran without a drop of gasoline; or let it be a Vietnam in the making forgetting that Pakistan’s heterogeneity and complexity defies even the best of sociologists and policy experts. Nowhere is poverty, especially that of the tribal belt, given the importance that it should be.

And when the international do-gooders want to do something about poverty they come up with packages that have been tried and tested across the globe with dismal results. How can piecemeal advisory aid impact in a gnawing and in-your-face policy vacuum? What happened to the FATA electoral reforms; plans to introduce local self-governance in the tribal areas; and the correction of draconian legal regime meant to advance the great game and colonialism? Above all, the much touted second and now third prong of FATA policy, namely development, employment and economic opportunity. The dehumanising poverty that facilitates selling the lives of young men in the name of esoteric jihad is nothing but years and years of exploitation and now a manifestation of unbearable poverty.

The truth is that Pakistan’s elites – both the political and the unelected – and their purported watchdogs are fairly oblivious to the fundamental reality of how the consumerist culture and emergence of Richistans in a sea of squalor and violence are aggravating deprivation, dispossession and hunger.

Never before has a predominantly agricultural country sbeen food-deficient and a victim of blatant capitalist speculation. Monopolies are not new phenomenon; however, cartels control oil, cement and all other elements of economic activity and survival. Yet, these are issues skirted around and a hapless civilian government, a product and victim of both the powerful elites and their machinations is the prime target of media critique. The corporate media not unlike India and other iniquitous societies is by and large indifferent to such monopolies and the capitalist machinations; much of its solution for inflation is executive control of prices.

The emergence of such Richistans is not restricted to Pakistan alone. Globalisation has to sell fabulous, vulgar wealth as a spectator sport and the ultimate marker of achievement. And the world’s war and oil industry have to fuel this all-pervasive greed.

True, the skewed growth during the last eight years has enabled many people to gate-crash into the world of elitism and create newer island-Richistans. The question is, at what and whose expense? Income and resource distribution have worsened and without a plan for redistribution there is no way to achieve peace, security and sustained progress in Pakistan. Sooner or later, the surrounding pooristans, tribalistans, conflictistans, violenceistans will gobble up these Richistans.

Estimates suggest that food price inflation have led to significant increase in Pakistani poverty levels. 20 percent inflation in food prices theoretically results in an 8 percent increase in the poverty head count. And, the official estimates suggest that the galloping inflation is above 30 percent. We are heading towards a situation where 50 percent of the population will be poor. Needless to mention, this situation ought to be the foremost priority of the State and its international partners. Domestic rhetoric on ideology and the global rants on terror can only destabilise Pakistan further that is in no one’s interest. The ruling party needs to revisit its social agenda and reclaim its original redistributive ethos. This is the time for initiating land reform; of increasing access of the poor to productive resources and undoing the structural roots of poverty. These policy priorities must drive the stabilisation packages proposed by all and sundry. The urgency of the storm, which has brewed for long time, needs to be recognised. It is already thumping the fragile contours of Pakistani society.

Raza Rumi is a writer. He blogs at www.razarumi.com and edits a cyber magazine, Pak Tea House, and the Lahore Nama blog-zine.

Photo Credits: Title photo is courtesy of Aamer Mukhtar at Flickr.com

26 responses to “Poverty and Inequality in Pakistan”

  1. DEWANA says:

    Rescuing banks, not farmers

    By Devinder Sharma

    Tt didn

  2. Raza Rumi says:

    Good to read all these comments here – am glad that there was a robust debate.

    Well, I am not sure what the comparisons with other countries will lead us to: the fact is that Pakistan’s poverty levels have increased in the past few years and the recent energy and food crises have pushed millions below the poverty line is what matters.

    I don’t care what happens in India and China – let’s talk of Pakistan and its woes.

    I was also surprised to read a comment that tried to undermine the poverty in FATA – the comparison between a Punjabi village and most parts of FATA cannot be made. The truth is that 50-60 percent (depends which estimate you consider) of the population lives below poverty line is a major source of worry and related to the current predicament of militancy.

  3. Vikram says:

    Hello guys. I am actually a regular visitor to this excellent blog, just want to stay up to date with whats happening with our neighbours to the east.

    I think one must be careful while trying to identify the causes for the chronic and widespread economic inequality in South Asia, and while offering the ‘models’ of other countries as solutions. Reconfiguring existing economic systems is certainly necessary, but without a healthy, literate and politically active population introducing a strongly capitalist system in a hurry can lead to significant long-term economic, social and environmental problems.

    So yes, the bureaucratic shackles must be broken. but at the same time the government (esp. the local government) must be an active regulator to ensure that capitalism doesnt turn into exploitation. Thanks.

  4. Riaz Haq says:

    I have visited China many times and know a thing or two about Chinese system in general and their software entrepreneurs in particular, many of whom have had high-profile IPOs comparable to the big high-tech IPOs in the US. In fact, the Chinese VC investments in all sectors are far ahead of VC investments in India. Neither of them can be compared to the US, however.

    On the whole, China is a essentially centrally planned economy with a lot of crony capitalism similar to other Asian tigers. Like other Asian tigers, China’s economy has performed well and brought real tangible economic benefits to its average people. China has become “the factory of the world” sucking good ,manufacturing jobs away from America and Europe. It is now the biggest lender to the Uncle Sam.

    While I abhor crony capitalism, I’d rather have the crony capitalism (like Musharraf’s or Mahathir’s) than a feudal-tribal system that dehumanizes people. Even a “democracy” in a feudal society becomes a cruel joke perpetrated on the most vulnerable in society.

  5. Fahim says:

    By the way, Habitat report on inequality in cities came up with Beijing as the most egalitarian city in the world.
    The cities with greatest inequality reside in South Africa and Brazil (I assume this means those cities not where PTI has worked to lessen that reality). The report notes that inequality in South Asia is comparable to Europe, yet poverty is more.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/oct/23/popula tion-egalitarian-cities-urban-growth
    Wealth gap creating a social time bomb

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