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The belief in change

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Ahmad Rafay Alam

The Economic Survey 2009-2010 is available and online for all to access. It paints a startling picture of this Islamic Republic and presents ground realities that cannot be ignored. And if one cares to compare what it says with the recent budget, the mismatch between what people need and what the government has proposed to meet those needs reveals itself in sharp relief.

At almost 170 million (officially), Pakistan is the world’s sixth most populous country. With a population growth rate of 2.1 per cent (the highest amongst the nine other countries compared with, including the SAARC countries, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia), our population is expected to reach some 300 million by 2050. For those young enough to expect to live so long, pause for a second and consider: there will be twice as many Pakistanis as they are now. If you think the government can barely handle the existing problems, well, double the problems and see if the government has any chance.

As things stand, nearly 62 per cent of the population lives in what are categorised as rural areas (conversely, over 35 per cent of the population lives in cities, making the Islamic Republic the most urbanised country in South Asia). The large rural population is primarily engaged in the agriculture sector, which employs 45 per cent of the workforce. Over half of this work is engaged in livestock and, even though our crop productivity is less than China, India, Brazil and the USA, 21 per cent of the country’s GDP comes from the agriculture.

That said, the Agriculture chapter of the Economic Survey states that “without major investments, it is unclear how Pakistan will tackle the emerging challenges such as declining water availability and climate change.” Pakistan is already a water-stressed country, and with our population expected to double in the next forty years, the existing per capita water resources will be halved at the very least. Climate change means, eventually, a decrease in glacial melt (which forms over 90 per cent of Pakistan’s water resources) and heralds a food security crisis.

Now go and check the budgets for investments or programmes to expand water resources. Mangla Dam is being raised, as are the Gomal Zam and Satpara Dam. According to our federal finance minister, these should be completed in 2010-2011. And the Daimir-Bhasha Dam, which is to be launched as a mega project in the coming financial year, will have a storage capacity of 6,450 MAF. Of course, there is no law, policy or political will dictating that we save or conserve water resources. All efforts are being put into increasing water storage for food production. Meanwhile, as news reports indicate that most of the water in Lahore contains arsenic and the Economic Survey itself states that every other Pakistani in hospital today is there because of contaminated drinking water. Meanwhile, the sahib log keep on washing their cars with drinking water and the faithful perform wu’zu five times a day.

Our health indicators (life expectancy 66.5 years; infant mortality of 65.1 per 1000 and child mortality under 5 years of 95.2 per 1000 are the highest amongst the nine other countries surveyed (i.e not the world) and, in any case, scandalously shocking.

Now go check the budgets to examine what sort of money the federal and provincial governments are setting aside for the healthcare of its citizens and compare it with the 17 per cent increase in the defence budget (this does not represent the hidden allocations for salaries and pensions made to the military under the “General Public Services” category). What use is it, I ask, to spend money protecting the Fortress of Islam when its inhabitants are literally wasting away because of dirty drinking water and a lack of healthcare resources.

Poverty in Pakistan is defined by calorie intake. The cost of 2350 calories per day is quantified and this, along with some other inputs, gives one where the poverty line is drawn. In other words, poverty is not about not having money; it’s about not having enough money to buy food. The Economic Survey tries to obfuscate what the poverty rate in Pakistan is. This is because of an unresolved tussle between the ministry of finance and the Planning Commission. But, depending on who you ask, anywhere between 20 to 35 per cent of Pakistanis live below the poverty line. But regardless where this line is drawn, the Economic Survey is clear on one thing: it states that simply “Accelerating economic growth…is not sufficient to bring down poverty levels.”

With the population expected to double and with urbanisation set to rise to well over 50 per cent, what we will see happening is the rise of instances of urban poverty. This is an entirely new problem. Currently, poverty is thought of as a rural phenomenon that can be worked on by – and here’s the rub – accelerating economic growth. It’s essentially a development issue. Urban poverty, on the other hand, will not be a development issue. It will be a health issue.

With most of the people in Pakistan expected to live in cities, there will be huge pressures on safe housing, clean and efficient sewage and sanitation infrastructure, healthcare facilities, job opportunities and recreational spaces. Without these facilities, the issue most pressing will be the effect the water, air and noise pollution will have on the incomes of people. If an urban worker loses a week a month to illness, that’s a quarter of his wages lost (with the remainder spent on medicine). At some point, the government must appreciate that cleaning up drinking water isn’t merely something the Environment Department should be doing (though, for their part, they don’t have National Environmental Quality Standards to enforce. These standards are meant to set by the Pakistan Environment Protection Council, which has met only once since this government was formed). Clean drinking water will actually reduce the incidents of urban illness and will translate into more income for families.

Now go and check the budgets to see what the federal and provincial governments are planning to do about this.

It’s becoming painfully clear that the issues we face on a day-to-day basis are linked not just to development but to the state of the environment and the effect of climate change as well. However, it seems that the government has not made this connection. Most debate still revolves around things like the VAT and security. No doubt these things are important (especially the VAT, because reform has to start somewhere), but they cannot be looked at in isolation from the existential problems faced by Pakistanis. Nowhere is the discussion, let alone budget allocation, on how to prioritise the mainstream environmental concerns into budget discussions. The Economic Survey’s chapter on the Environment paints a bleak picture of what’s going on in Pakistan, yet the list of the federal government’s programmes to combat these challenges is negligible (having the Guinness Record for the most number of trees planted in a day is not something a federal government should consider a landmark achievement).

In the chapter on Poverty, the Survey candidly states: “Periods of growth that have occurred at periods of macro-economic stability do not tend to produce desired outcomes regards poverty.” It is time for our government and the politicians in it to understand that Pakistan’s current and future problems can’t be solved by existing thinking. We’ve got to start thinking outside the box. Of course, the great challenge here is to start believing that we have the ability and capacity to undertake this thinking and bring the change. But then again, it’s the job of the leaders to give their people that confidence.

The writer is an advocate of the high court and a member of the adjunct faculty at LUMS. He has an interest in urban planning. Email:

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