The poor abandoned? By I.A. Rehman

WHILE the fight against terrorists continues to cause nightmares Pakistan has run into another menace — the threat of an economic implosion. And the hardest hit by this affliction too are likely to be the poor across the country.
Grey-haired economists are warning of hyperinflation, some of them hinting at three-digit inflation and not discounting four-digit figures. They foresee an industrial slowdown and a serious fall in employment. It is not possible to dismiss this assessment because reports of job cuts and lay-offs are already coming in from Karachi, Faisalabad and other industrial centres. As prices soar and the value of the rupee in the exchange market continues to tumble, it is said, all those hovering around the line of absolute poverty will find themselves increasingly unable to secure the bare essentials of existence.

It is possible that these pessimistic findings are somewhat exaggerated but prudence demands preparing for the worst even when the visible tip of an iceberg offers no indication of a deluge.

The repercussions of the global financial crisis have hit Pakistan’s poor at a time when their energies have been sapped and their reserves exhausted by the rising prices of atta and shrinking supplies of electricity and gas.

The price of wheat flour has been continually rising for quite some time. At some places the increase over two years has been estimated at 100 per cent. The entire population has seen images of people scrambling for a bag of flour offered at a discount. Many of them have been buying flour that is not fit for human consumption. No account is being kept of the time consumed in the search for the most essential food item at rates the poorest families can afford, nor of their humiliation.

At the same time the energy crisis is causing distress to a much larger section of the population, as its victims include beside the poor the lower rungs of the affluent who can have their bread and cake both. But the disruption of production again hits the poor the most. Many are forced to work longer to earn their meagre wages and a larger number are pushed into forced idleness and obliged to dip into their savings, if they have any.

Increases in street crime, the suicide rate and cases of mental disorder are all being attributed to the people’s growing inability to make the two ends meet.

A greater cause for anxiety than the misery of the country’s overwhelming majority is the state’s attitude to the multi-dimensional economic crisis. A senior economist’s observation that the plight of the underprivileged does not bother the elite because it is busy garnering its gains on dollar accounts may be an indulgence in cynicism but it is impossible to deny the fact that official initiatives over the past 20 months or so have failed to inspire public confidence.

When the present spell of the people’s misfortune began, the official experts parroted the line that the economy was enjoying robust health and only prices of food items had been rising, as if an increase in the cost of foodstuffs did not matter so long as sales of cosmetics and cellphones were going up. Then came ad hoc measures to subsidise the cost of food and some other consumer items at utility stores.

More recently much noise has been made about ensuring the sale of roti for two rupees (involving the loss of a rupee on each roti, according to one estimate).

The responses to the energy crisis have been far more outlandish and their benefit hard to fathom — from better use of daylight hours and regulation of loadshedding spells to hefty increases in tariff.

All these are devices favoured by desperate accountants and do not indicate the working of sober and mature minds the nation needs at the moment. In the same category falls the State Bank plan to extend succour to reckless bankers and ruthless manipulators of stocks. A lot of money is being pumped into the system that has flourished by oppressing the masses, by making the poor poorer without always making the rich richer.

These steps offer little to ordinary citizens who are quite incensed at every new sign of extravagance (such as proliferation of ministers and sinecures carrying ministerial perks) on the part of the opulent guardians of a callously impoverished flock.

According to gossip in Islamabad the government is confident of weathering the crisis because the rich and advanced powers will not abandon Pakistan, because this country is indispensable for saving the world order. Nothing can be more dangerous than the delusion that the world has the resources and patience to go on rescuing a country that shows no sign of helping itself. Even if assumptions of external help are proved correct, Pakistan’s ability to benefit fully will depend on the sincerity and efficiency of its economic managers.

Unfortunately the government has shown greater interest in blaming its poor inheritance for the economic difficulties than in trying to solve them. True, most of Pakistan’s problems can be traced to the autocratic regimes of generals Zia and Musharraf. Indeed the people’s current tribulations should cement their resolve to ensure that the democratic process will never again be derailed. Still, no government can opt out of its primary responsibilities to overcome a crisis with the plea that someone else had created it. No time should be lost in finding long-term solutions to the people’s suffering.

The process must begin by removing the perception that the state has abandoned the poor. Instead of seeking the survival of the poor through a dole system their interest must be at the centre of economic planning and management. The state should spend scarce resources less on itself and more on the people, especially the poor. These people are capable of doing great deeds provided that their potential is recognised and practically utilised. In any case they form the largest chunk of our human capital.

This is not the time to merely pretend allegiance to the poor; this is the time to recognise their inviolable right to gainful employment, upward social mobility and their due role in managing the state. There is a near consensus that Pakistan will not be able to turn the corner unless defence expenditure is reduced (without, of course, weakening defence), wasteful and non-productive expenditure on administration is radically slashed, a new land utilisation policy is adopted, and the born-again robber barons are reined in. Time to get cracking, as they say.

Source: Daily Dawn, 23/10/2008

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