ARTICLE (September 22 2008): As globalisation makes a head-on collision with greed, we strive harder and harder to incorporate First-World mechanisms to meet our Third World desires. We try to build ourselves little First World prototypes in the spaces of our homes and jobs.
Bright streetlights [if and when there is electricity], shops stocking fancy stuff and restaurants that adorn our otherwise dim roads, seem enough to blind one from the barefooted four-year-old boy rummaging through our garbage or the eyeballs-rolled-back-in-the-head drug addict getting the cold sweats while carrying a malnourished baby girl on his shoulder begging, to satisfy his crave for his addiction or to feed the little girl, we cannot know. Day after day, the only visible now common sight all around us in Pakistan is the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.
This dilemma of the poor getting poorer and the hungry getting hungrier [so desperate is the hunger and poverty that for some suicides seemed the only alternative], views were sought from four eminent personalities renown in their fields.
On asking Mr Kaiser Bengali, a noted economist, as to the economic conditions prevailing at the moment in Pakistan, said that claims regarding poverty alleviation touted during Musharraf/Shaukat Aziz tenure, the claimed decrease in the poverty rate from 33% to 23%, was not based on real-time happenings and figures, but was rather done by systematic manipulation of statistical data. He said that for any economy to achieve a 10% decline in poverty levels in such a short period, is nothing short of a miracle. He further said that due to lack of planning in the agricultural sector during the previous regime, a severe shortage of food is being witnessed, coupled with manifold increase in their prices. These factors have created more poverty and hunger, with the result that an average family can barely manage two meals a day.
On enquiring from the renowned Mr Abdul Sattar Edhi and Bilquis Edhi, they stated poverty is increasing at a phenomenal rate: 40% of our population is living at the edge of the poverty levels while out of this 15% are so poor that they cannot even afford to have one meal a day.
Ms Shazia Marri, Minister for Information, Government of Sindh, said about 70% of the population in rural areas was living below the poverty line. Poor agricultural growth was witnessed because no help was extended to the poor small farmers; neither water courses nor any loans from agricultural banks were given to them. She further said when calamities hit rural areas, the small farmer lost his crop thereby decreasing his spending power making survival difficult which, in cases, made him migrate to cities to look for a livelihood. This added to urbanisation, where facilities were already stretched to the limit.
In spite of the continuous economic crisis, what the so-called elite did to ease their guilty conscience was to declare blame on poor government policies or on the poor themselves for not making efforts to improve their lot. What their elitist brains failed to comprehend is the fact that there is no social and economic mobility in Jinnah’s young country. Putting government policies to a side for now, one can question why the 5-year-old girl wearing clothes two sizes smaller than her and selling flowers does not go to school or why an entire family of eight lives in a cramped jhuggi.
On the topic of the bleak human condition of the poverty-stricken, Mr Kaiser Bengali said that economic woes are faced by those who do not own any assets; land, livestock, education or a house. They own nothing more beyond what we can see on them. Those who manage to study till matric or in rare cases up to intermediate in government schools still did not get an increase in share of jobs as these are usually given or rather taken away by influential parents whose children have studied in private schools. These are the things that define who is to be rich and who is to be poor.
There is education apartheid in Pakistan. Presently, either children go to Urdu medium schools or to madrassas or not at all, thus rendering them unqualified for jobs that have English as a requirement resulting in immobility of the poor to better their class. More than 80% of the country’s revenues are generated by indirect taxes, so the burden is on the poor; while only 20% of taxes are collected from rich. One can only stretch their imagination that far to expect anything other than poverty. There is no transfer of assets, no shift in tax policies and no structural change.
Additionally, Mr Bengali stated that in the past years hardly any GDP growth has been seen in the agricultural sector. The only growth witnessed has been in the banking sector. The average growth rate in the banking sector has been 13% in the last 8 years while in the agricultural sector the average growth is 3%. In 4 out of the last 8 years, the agricultural sector has had negative growth (decline). Comparatively, the banking sector has had a growth rate of 30% in 2 out of the last 8 years and witnessed a 40% increase in another year.
Mr Edhi stated that nothing in this country is meant for the poverty-stricken; even drinking water, when available, is dirty and is the main cause of diseases which can be fatal. There is no electricity in government schools, no teachers and thus no standard of education. Ms Bilquis Edhi said that when politicians come into power, they simply make themselves rich instead of the country. [Kaiser Bengali, in this regard, commented that Generals and Brigadiers have enriched themselves more than what any politician can dream of]. Additionally, Mr Edhi revealed the concept of the beggar mafia who have systematically turned begging into a well-paid job. The average beggar, according to Mr Edhi, makes about RS 400 a day; he pointed out that if the rich constantly give money to beggars to ease their own guilty conscience, begging will never end. Why would one want to work at a job when you can get money for free? The Edhis also pointed out the fact that the government has to take the first step to abolish the art of begging in the country and went further on to say that our country is overridden by jahalat, poverty, laziness and no family planning.
Ms Shazia Marri was of the view that the cycle of progress in our country did not match the demands of the people. The basic issue of an unstable economic environment in Pakistan discouraged investors from putting money in any field of work in the country.
Additionally, not much international aid was forthcoming in the past years because the government was not a peoples’ government but was of an authoritarian nature, thus did not feel accountable to people. Although, several donations come internationally, it was the government’s job to make sure the aid reaches the deserving people. However, due to non-existence of an adequate distribution system, corruption flourished and the donated amounts never reached the deserving or aided the cause for which it was given.
Ms. Marri further said that the donor agencies should be able to hold the government accountable with the amount provided for a specific cause/project. However that remained unchecked. There has been a bad precedent, thus, there is no check on the donations received and no specific performance reports were sent to the donors. She further stated that corruption is phenomenal; if donor agencies want to give, then the government of that country has to be approachable and feel responsible towards the people.
Ms Marri also pointed out that there was lack of opportunity for rural people in urban areas as the job market is more competitive. The previous government had hired teachers without adequate qualifications, thereby further reducing the standard of education imparted in government schools.
To overcome these serious social and economic problems, Mr Kaiser Bengali stated that the immediate step the government has taken is by starting the Benazir Income Support programme; RS 1000/- each to be given to more than 3 million families so those earning 5000 rupees a month will have a 20% increase in purchasing power.
On their part, to help feed the poor and hungry, Edhis have opened 325 centres that provide free food to more than 3 million people every day. Ms. Marri stated that women in rural areas who are either old or widowed, needed financial support to survive. However, the previous government did not have any concept of a welfare system which is something Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto wanted to develop for the people.
She said that the government was now ready to emancipate women, particularly in the rural areas, and would make sure that they are given their share in agricultural land-ownership; 15 to 18 acres of land will be given to women individually and other programmes would be developed to assist them earn a decent livelihood. The introduction of agricultural loans, that will be easy to pay off, and basic agricultural inputs such as water and seeds will be made available.
Men will also be considered for allotment of agricultural land, but the main focus will be on women. She said that the construction of dams for the province will be planned and rain forests will be preserved. The government will also provide teachers with academic programmes to improve the quality and standard of education in the country. Unlike the previous regime, the government is treating the poverty crisis as a serious issue for the social and economic strengthening of majority of the provinces. Further, Ms. Marri said that the government will now be accountable to the Pakistani people unlike the authoritarian regime of General Zia-ul-Haq and Perfuse Musharraf.
With Mr Asif Ali Zardari having been elected President of Pakistan, the onus of providing good, strong and clean governance rests with him. Expectations are running high with his party holding the reins of power. Mr Zardari can order immediate steps be taken to alleviate the sufferings of the poor and hapless, providing them succour and opportunities to better their lot.
(The writer is an intern at Business Recorder and is currently studying English Literature and Philosophy at The University of Hull, UK.)