Posts Tagged ‘Poverty in Pakistan’

The Fashion of Poverty

July 18, 2009

LN98_2i528784As anybody could guess, Prime Minister’s directive to discour­age fashion shows not in con­sonance with Islamic values, ‘ Pakistani culture and heritage and norms of decency, has fomented a de­bate – open as well as covert. Reli­gious-minded and conservative persons are praising the step with enthusiasm and fer­vour. Those criticising the directive are a small minority of those who like themselves to be called liberal, enlightened and progressive. But there is a huge number of the middle mass persons who indulge in the trappings of modern Western life yet they are traditional at heart and faithfully follow Islamic rituals. They turn very strict once their daughters reach the college going age. 

So, the opposition to restric­tions on a practice common in westernised countries will be there and will be quite virile as its strength would come from some of the most influential drawing rooms of the country besides from the developed world. However, one would hate to see the issue transfigure into another controversy between Islam and the ‘liberals’. 

One found it rather strange, that until the time of writing these lines, nobody had mentioned the most serious aspect of the Directive. The Demonstration Effect of the display of riches through the glitter of such functions, sky-high prices of dresses and other wares, the type of crowd that attends these demonstrations – are a sub­ject which should be examined in terms of our income as a nation and economic sta­tus of the vast majority of our population. Thirty three percent of the population of Pakistan lives below the poverty line, and 66 percent earns less than two dollars a day. Add to them those living at lower fringe of the middle class who are as vulnerable to poverty as those living under the poverty line. One is not a vigilante. One also would not venture to opine what is repugnant to Islam and what is appropriate or inappropriate. But any­body with a live conscience should feel ashamed of indulging in extravagance and ostensation while thirty five percent of the population living in cities of Pakistan are dwelling in shanty towns and katchi abadis with no running water, electricity, road, school or health facility! 

How many girls in this society remain unmarried because their families cannot afford basic es­sentials? And here we go to demonstrate the flood of affluence and an ambience of difference to what is happening in other parts of nation’s towns and villages!  

Let us also blow the myth that there will be a popular uproar if the filthy rich of the society are not allowed to carry on with their activities. Figures for Pakistan’s income distribution, for 2000, show that 10 percent richest persons of Pakistan re­ceieve 28.3 percent of national income while the lowest 10 percent receive only 8.7 percent of national income. Sixty five percent of population have income of less than $ 2 a day. Now how many of them would have the money to spend on clothes which least suit this climate or which can­not be worn in this society – not due to nudity but due to presence of others dressed in ordinary clothes. How many will have the money upward of the salary of a clerk in the government to waste on expensive hairdos, body lifts and expen­sive facials? How many have the resources to spare for foreign trips to shop in largest stores of the world while their relatives and town-people find it hard even to pay their utility bills? At the end of the day, it is a minis­cule proportion of our urban society who indulge in vulgar display of their riches in immediate neighbourhood of some of the worst pockets of poverty? And who knows how many of the audience at these dis­plays are there only as spectators who would not let girls of their families even attend such functions because they cannot afford to meet demands that follow attendance at such extravaganzas? 

We, like all developing societies, suffer from the inability to coor­dinate events and learn from history. The directive to desist the holding of fashion shows is a step in the sequence of directives about austerity issued by many governments of the past. It is unique-­because it will pinch only a selected class of society. The list may start with PM Junejo’s ban on the use of large cars by government officials. One-dish marriage feasts order promulgated by Shahbaz Sharif in the Punjab was a significant mea­sure towards austerity. Ban on dowry in Ayub Khan’s family laws and the re­newed emphasis on it by a vocal NGO of Islamabad was a significant step towards simplicity and social reform. More re­cently, the ban on dancing in girls’ schools and colleges in the Punjab was a step in the same direction, except that it had moral and religious overtones. The initiative of Sindh Assem­bly against karo-kari, child marriages in lieu of family feuds, and the decisions of tribal elders to commit rape of women, all reflect the urge to remove injustice and inequality from society. It means the urge for egalitarianism does exist in soci­ety. 

There are, however, two aspects of this urge.

First: None of these measures suc­ceeded in the real sense. The major hin­drance was the resistance and indifference of the elite, the super-rich and those in power. Every federal and provincial gov­ernment in Pakistan always had a strong presence of arrogant elements of society who took these restrictions as infringement of their freedom. Illiteracy, and the growing craze for wealth pushed justice and decency into the background. Since most of the anti-social and unjust activities are virtual money minting machines, more and more persons join the unholy alliance perpetuating the lifestyle inherited and acquired from the expensive and glamorous world of the West. 

The branding of measures for the adoption of morality, simplicity, austerity as the way of the Mullah – or more re­cently the Taliban – was inevitable. Islam is an advocate of egalitarianism and sim­plicity. Any economic and social action aimed at adopting these principles will be championed by the religious community. But it does not make them the product of the ‘Mullah mentality’. In the present day political scenario, this might be inter­preted as a capitulation before the reli­gious parties. One is not concerned with these guesses. The basic aim of society should be to stop vulgar display of riches and the social and economic arrogance irrespec­tive of sponsors. 

There are bound to be arguments about unemployment of people engaged in the fashion industry and the related para­phernalia. There also will be efforts to hawk fashion as an art form and a medium of expression. It shall also be argued that the displays in Pakistan are of the same genre as shows around the developed world. Further, that Pakistan would become an object of ridicule if ‘modern’ ac­tivities are banned in the country. 

Answers, are simple.

First, every occupation has a large number of persons working for it, though many of them are considered un­desirable. Should they be allowed to con­tinue only to ensure employment? The present case is simpler. It is only a question of propriety and social desirability. Who has denied that fashion is an art form? But this country is not at a stage of displaying that art publicly. And it may not be in a position to do so ever, because it is still a developing country, and an Islamic country and Islam demands modesty and haya both from women and men. If some body does not like it, they are at a wrong place. About the argument that fashion shows, dress shows, are a routine in the developed countries, let us remember that many more things happen in these lands which we cannot even imagine to do. Let them have their values, we have ours. The argument that many charitable organisations will die if such functions are banned does not hold. Why don’t they pioneer other activities which are moderate, acceptable and less irritating? There is no dearth of such initiatives in an entertain­ment-starved laud. 

Let us remember again that we are a country which still has to meet basic needs of its poor. Must we insult them by inde­cent display of the arrogance of wealth and power? It is not good for anybody!

November 20, 2003


How Many Homes a Person Needs?

June 29, 2009

ATT2The country, once again is in the grip of a frenzy of possessing plots for houses and busi­nesses. And scenes at the of­fices of big housing projects are as shameful as ever. Equally rampant are the frauds and methods of making a quick buck. Almost everybody who has some funds at their disposal has joined the race to jump on the bandwagon, even if it comprises a bundle of misstatements, mirages, unrealistic aspirations, and false dreams aggrandised by blitz of publicity. Many of the pursuers are those who do not have a house of their own. But most are those who want to add to the property they already own or their agents – just another house, another shop, another piece of land to sell at a profit later on.

There are few grounds to object to investment in real estate if it is a legitimate and honest business. But there is a strong moral and social case to assert that a person needs only one home for oneself and one’s family to live in. If one has managed to build a family house and establish a ‘home’, opportunities to own a house should be left for those who do not possess a house to build a home.

The country continues to suffer from a perpetual shortage of housing like the other social services, increase in population being faster than the rate of increase in services, housing could never match the demands of a galloping population. The situa­tion was aggravated by the unending stream of humanity mi­grating from villages and small towns to cities, in particular the mega-cities; these migrants, naturally, need a place to live in the city. The demand, thus created, brings a renter class to fore. Land sharks and conmen follow. With an annual demand of more than half a million new houses, the real estate business stands as a lu­crative occupation for a variety of people. Since housing has a high multiplier effect, large segments of population get activities related to this industry. Starting with the acquisition and sale of land, housing involves the construction industry, decoration and furnishing business, financial institutions of various descriptions, horticulture, landscaping, environmental manage­ment, waste disposal, etc. Even a slight fluctuation in fortunes of the housing industry is bound to affect the health of related industries.

The economic and commercial leadership enjoyed by hous­ing thus creates a huge lobby on the national economic and social scene, which, besides other purposes, for personal benefit pro­motes real-estate business, construction industry and the banks – and everything else that boosts housing business. Every nation depends upon some sectors of the economy for economic development and for welfare of its people. Construction thus becomes a plum sector for the government, a darling of investors in de­velopment, a top priority for entrepreneurs, and a much sought after goal for those without a house of their own, in case of Pak­istan.

Ironically, the same hallowed position has brought the housing sector to much disrepute. It is, perhaps, the most scandal-prone economic activity in the country, as almost everybody with a chance to obtain a piece of land by fair or foul means, jumps into the great hunt for a plot of land. It seems to be a craving that can­not be put off and a need that everybody wants to fulfill sooner than later. Any situation with such a high demand and a very lim­ited supply is an open field for adventures, speculators, gamblers, mobsters to play around, besides genuine investors and the needy. What has been going on for the last few years in the name of providing residential land to the public is unworthy of a con­scientious people. Systematically and ruthlessly people have been deprived of their money – in most cases, hard earned – for properties that were not worth the price charged and which were to be delivered after long waits and a series of additional charges. The spate of foreign remittances after 9/11 created a wave of their own Recipients of these amounts – after spending on electronic consumers’ goods, etc proceeded to invest in real estate; other investments were not a preference. The phenomenon caused a glut in the market skyrocketing prices of real estate, concurrently increasing the incidence of fraud and various types of scams, tar­nishing the image of honest and established organizations.

One is an old supporter of policies that promote a decent house for every family. No sane person can disagree with this goal. But ‘pro-housing for all’ policies have some serious social and economic implication.

First: Housing projects on the periphery of cities are located on cultivated lands. They, and the area covered by infrastructure like roads, utilities and services is lost to agriculture for all times to come. Even at the rate of 300,000 odd new houses built ever year, the loss of agricultural land over time will be colossal. Equally significant will be the displacement of agricultural labor from the lands acquired by housing schemes. What will happen to them and their families in terms of employment, living accommodation and facilities they were used to in the agricultural set-up? Many housing schemes have made forays into villages located in the heart of rural areas around the large cities. These raises more concerns. Problems facing peripheries of cities will confront the deeper rural areas more severely, including threatening environmental changes. Going by the record of our housing societies in the ‘cooperatives’ era and myriad agencies, there would be needed strong measures to protect the original owner of land, besides protecting the environment.

Second: It is not very widely realised that urban construction and urban expansion in an under-developed country have limits to grow. While the economic and commercial interests may continue to focus upon housing and business premises, the resources for construction activity may not be available in amounts needed by the industry. What is required in this respect are renewed efforts to slow down the shift of labour from rural to urban areas. It is a difficult task in Pakistan due to a growing knowledge of economic opportunities in the city, continued oppression by big landholders and feudal lords, dwindling profit margins in agriculture. Creation of employment opportunities in rural areas is considered to be the best way to hold the rural population in their own villages. But they cause pollution, environmental decay and again, the loss of agricultural land to non agricultural activity.

ATT7Third, urbanization is an inevitable development in less developed countries. More than half of the population of Pakistan is already in the urban areas. It will continue to increase at rate higher than those for the entire nation.But rise in the proportion of population in sub-standard conditions must be checked. Most of the approaches to contain slum areas and improve living conditions of their inhabitants, concentrate on improvement of infrastructure and the physical facilities. Initiatives are needed to create an inner urge to improve living styles and standard or something tried through the community development programmes of yore. Education, especially the adult education would be the key to bring about a rapid change.

Decreasing the ill-conceived and ill-intentioned demand for new houses, however, involves the demand created by those who build additional houses as a luxury, status symbol or investment. One does not want to indulge in the larger issue of capitalistic or the socialist approach in life. But morality of our actions in the light of the economic and social situation in the country would be fair. With almost forty percent of the population living under the poverty line, overwhelming part of the population suffering from deprivation and widespread privation in society, one is not expected to indulge in vulgar ostentation in building houses for summer and winter; village and the city, mountains and the sea beach. They amount to gross wastage and are reflective of insensitivity to the conditions of the vast majority of people. If somebody wants to justify such ostentation on the basis of contribution to economic activity, one could ask about the harm that multiple luxury houses do to the society by depriving the less fortunate of their rights and share in society and setting a wrong example for others. Would those with means, reconsider their craving for building or acquiring a second, third or fourth houses over the home that they already possess?September 23, 2004

Focus on Social Development

December 19, 2008


One, as if by instinct, is constrained to brush all other affairs aside as the season for the annual budget and the plan exercises approaches, and start thinking about the shape of the economy during the coming year. Just as others are occupied by concerns dictated by their areas of interest or line of duty, impulse compels me to focus on social development which remains the most depressed area of our national life, despite incessant solemn expressions of commitment by every government, since Independence.


This time, this feeling has been accentuated by impending referendum and the general elections, and the sight of humanity gathered at the inevitable political rallies related with these events. The budget for 2002-03 is bound to be conditioned by the covenants and undertakings made in connection with the elections and commitments made already at the referendum-related meetings. Logically, this should give a people-friendly tilt to the economic programme, as popular demands, overwhelmingly, concern issues related to social development and poverty alleviation, besides major perpetual problems like inflation, utilities, unemployment, etc. But their implementation will depend upon the imperatives that determine the weight of essential items of expenditure like defence, debt repayment and ongoing development projects. Development of an expenditure mix in such a situation will be a difficult task. But in order to fulfil promises made with the people, and to build the credibility of the government, accommodation of a sizable social sector programme in the development and non-development budget be an absolute necessity.


Whatever the compulsions, whosoever the motivator, whatsoever the sources of transportation, the people one watched in public meetings of General Musharraf, should be representing the cross-section of the people of Pakistan. One will not accept the notion that they were brought to these meetings under duress, or an assortment of lures. Some might have. But the vast majority would have come willingly – to see General Musharraf in person; to experience a political gathering after a long interval; to listen to the arguments for supporting the United States’ activities in the area; to learn about domestic sectarianism, terrorism, general law and order situation. But most of all, what the government was contemplating to check the rise in prices, schooling of children, hospitals, taxes and duties, police high-handedness and a variety of other problems facing the less privileged people of this country. One should not be surprised that there exists a genuine concern about the treatment meted out to Pakistanis in rest of the world and what was being done to restore the prestige of Pakistan and the Pakistanis in foreign countries. People want to know about these matters to put their minds at peace. The meetings provided them with an opportunity to judge the sincerity of their rulers at first hand – whatever the physical distance.


One cannot help feeling distressed if the sight of the people of different shades, classes and occupations, gathered at one place, diverts one’s thoughts towards the extent and volume of work that needs to be done to bring cheer in the life of these hapless people, cheated again and again. 51 million out of them are illiterate. Millions of children of school going age do not attend school. 85 per cent new-borns die before reaching the age of one year. Close to 16 thousand women die every year during child birth and pregnancy. 2.4 million people are without employment. 71 million do not have a proper house. 54 million people go without clean drinking water.  82 million live without sanitation. Worst, at least 49 million do not have more than Rs.2000 per month to live on.


Changing  their life for the better is a formidable task. And we should admit that we have not done much to lay the foundation of permanent improvement in the life of our poor. We have not even accepted the need for concurrent achievement of short and long term goals. We, right from the beginning of development planning, have been occupied by medium term plans – and a couple of times by long term perspective models. The annual planning was started in 1968 as an exercise separate from the regular budget, but gradually, it became an appendix to the larger and wider budgetary drill. This pushed the real argument favouring quick development almost into oblivion. The case revolved around the need for immediate provision of services, redressal of deprivation, correction of mistakes and thus obtaining community support for planning and raising resources for development. A humane rational for quick-yield plans is to provide some much-needed succour for the population alongside projects which would yield results much later.


In a society where the lowest 20 per cent of the population were being allowed to receive only 9 per cent of the national income as against 41 per cent pocketed by the richest 20 per cent, faces seen in political meetings seem to be looking forward to receiving their share of income for the procurement of necessities and a few comforts. Mega-projects, huge industrial units, and an extended trade grid do provide a base for a stable economy and a prosperous society. But the man from among the 34 per cent living below the poverty line – and even a good number from the middle class do look forward to immediate assuagement of their circumstances. Just as their basic demand is for bare necessities, they also harbour a quest for the simplest of services: household necessities, health facilities, education for children, semblance of a house, and in the changed times – clean water, electricity, and household fuel. And of course a source of income.


It is an unfortunate development that the long succession of false promises and failed plans have created a large segment of population which is so disillusioned and desperate that they would not trust anybody – howsoever noble they might look. This is dangerous. They can spread hopelessness around and obstruct change. They can agitate their peers and create ugly situations. Or they can destroy themselves and their families. Acceptable or not, they represent a sizeable number of poverty stricken and potentially volatile population. Yet one cannot ignore their grievances and the graveness of their conditions. They need economic and social sector programmes urgently before their frustrations and deprivations erupt into destructive occupations.


The political scenario, as it is unfolding, calls for fast development of economic opportunities and vigorous action for enhancement of social sectors. Heightened aspirations, intensified expectations and inflated demands are bound to become a challenge for plan makers, project developers and resource generators. The new budget will also have to contend with the aftermath of the September 11 episode and current goings in our neighbourhood and the Middle East. One concedes the compulsions of extraneous developments, but the fiery brew maturing within the country cannot be ignored. The past few years have witnessed a stream of new duties and taxes. Besides, tax recoveries in a society used to free ride and corruption have generated stress – justified or not. With higher payments to the government and the civic bodies, people do expect improved services and added facilities. Their denial will not only create disaffection but will also raise apprehensions about economic development and social progress. At the risk of repetition, one will refer to one’s recent plea for attention to social sectors like education, literacy, health, environment, housing, communication – and the origin of our major problems, high population growth. And may one remind that people are looking forward to micro-steps which will mitigate their problems fast, rather than plans hidden in the haze of distant future. Can there be a better example of planning for both than the home where parents make long term investment in education of children, but also provide them with comforts of life necessary for meeting their immediate needs – food, clothing and security! So, it can be done, if one has the heart to do so.

(News April 16/ 2002)

Katchi Abadis: Living in Continuous Misery

December 18, 2008


Just as one had finished guessing about the author of the Ministry of Environment’s clarification about the Katchi Abadis rendered in some impeccable English, the people of Islamabad discovered that outside their homes and offices no mean a deluge had set in. The first victim, of course, had to be the katchi abadis, and by the evening it was so confirmed. The havoc in these abadis was so colossal that the National Policy on Katchi Abadis, the agencies operating in these luckless areas, explanations and clarifications all had become irrelevant. One could only wish that there had been some quick action in all these years besides policies, plans and rhetoric.


Somebody should not think that one is inimical to the plans being made for improving in the life of the inhabitants of slums and squatter settlements. But the waiting game being played with them in Islamabad for the last three decades has been apathetic and cruel. Perhaps, nobody dealing with this issue over the years – except those working in these Abadis directly – have ever realized that the life in these abadis is a day-to-day business. Apart from poverty, low incomes, uncertain employment, there are no civic amenities on a regular basis. Whatever little is available is illegal, and is maintained through bribery, corruption and a variety of protection and maintenance money paid to various functionaries.


The exasperation of the Environment Ministry over insinuations of being sympathetic with the land mafia is understandable, as the real problem lies elsewhere. The squatter settlements, in most cases, are located on potentially expensive pieces of land as such they are targeted by both legal and illegal real-estate traders. Whenever one of them gets an opportunity, they get some abadi demolished with active assistance of the local authorities, spilling over its people all around the town. But, ironically, there exist forces which are stronger than the individual land developer or grabber – the minions of security departments the anti-drugs outfits, the electricity, gas, water, telephone sectors and field officials of the municipal set up. Mostly, there exists a system of regular periodic payments for the services provided within the settlements illegally. But on occasions, ‘emergency’ charges are levied for real or concocted official threat to the status quo.


For these departments, the katchi abadis are virtual gold mines. They, and their patrons at higher echelons do not want the poverty, squalor and congestion of these settlements eradicated, as these conditions create the need for illegal installation of facilities and their servicing. Vulnerability, unemployment, and underemployment breed petty crime and delinquency. Law enforcement personnel take full advantage of the squalid conditions, shady atmosphere and low status of the inhabitants. Since these Abadis are never visited by senior officials, the perceptions of the character and conditions of the slum dwellers depend upon the narration of junior officials. Serious scientific reports – few as they are – do not get the attention that they deserve. The mindset of our establishment, unfortunately, is such that incumbents of an office dislike adverse findings even if they pertain to a century old situation. A realistic report as such is either suppressed or a new exercise by some friendly vendor is commissioned.


This combination of diverse interests has hindered the resolution of the katchi abadis. There have been serious efforts to alleviate the sufferings of the residents of the settlements in Islamabad. But they were delayed, stretched or encumbered by legal, administrative or budgetary constraints – real and fabricated.


Every few years, the inhabitants are given the good tidings of granting them ownership rights, providing them with civic amenities, or shifting them to planned settlements with full ownership of dwellings. They fill documents, collect required papers, get judicial attestations; in the end nothing happens. Even a temporary relief to improve their conditions does not materialize. Instead, what they get is further exploitation, and the lethargy induced by ‘ultimate major step towards permanent solution’, with an indefinite timetable. Since the majority of the katchi abadi dwellers of Islamabad are engaged in domestic work of some kind, they can only relate their vows to their employees and get some help in emergency, but the issue of prime concern – permanent shelter – remains un-resolved; at the most what they would get will be some more hope and another mirage. In the meanwhile, their sense of deprivation, state of uncertainty and miserable conditions of living will perpetuate.


The deluge on the morning of Monday, the 23rd July 2001 might be an exceptionally severe occurrence. But it washed away all the valuables that people in the Katchi Abadis of Islamabad had; if anything remained, it was badly damaged. And the so-called houses were destroyed thoroughly. ‘It was a river which entered my home, as if from nowhere’, was one description. The katchi abadis of Islamabad suffer from some common disadvantages: they are located next to some major nullah (if it does not flow through the middle); they are situated at ground lower than the nearby roads and buildings; most of them are in open space without the protection of large trees, drainage or any other prominent barricade against storm water. But the worst common problem is the frailty of structures. Since the land does not belong to the dwellers, one is hesitant to construct a lasting structure. What the slum residents live in are make-shift feeble walls with an assortment of roofs and unsound doors. They cannot stand a storm or even a slight flood. It was within minutes that the inhabitants found themselves sitting in the middle of fast flowing water, soaked in a totally unexpected cloudburst – without the men-folk, most of whom had gone to work. Were the houses more sturdy, they would not have crumbled like a house made of match sticks. And this – one would repeat – would have happened only if the land had belonged to the householder!


One will not like to delve in discussing the contents of the National Policy or what was planned to be done for the katchi abadis. What is needed is quick action to alleviate the sufferings of almost one-third of our urban population. They deserve a more respectable, decent and healthy life with their needs fulfilled, and some comforts – earned legally and honourably! There may not be another cloudburst in the immediate future, but there would surely be rains, and cold, and then hot summer. One knows that the katchi abadi dwellers will not be even compensated for their losses as they were squatters. But they are citizens of this country – and most of them are engaged in useful work. Don’t they deserve a permanent shelter before another disaster strikes? Will it be asking for too much.

 (News July 26/ 2001)

Serious About Poverty Alleviation?

October 21, 2008

It generally, is not realized that the culture of wastage and callousness in poverty-stricken communities contributes to poverty just as

fatalism hinders the efforts to reduce it

The World Bank’s president James Wolfensohn did some plain talking last week, about Pakistan’s economic situation and poverty. He praised the govern­ment for putting the economy on the path to economic growth – from 3.1 per cent in 2000-2001, to more than 7 per cent in 2004-2005 and appreciated the economic reforms introduced during the last five years. Generally, he handed he Pakistan Government a fair en­dorsement of its economic policies. But he also emphasized that the economic growth, though essential for reducing poverty, had not yet made the desired effect on poverty levels.

He stressed the need to pass on the benefits of this growth to the people, underscoring a basic problem facing Pakistani society right from the begin­ning – inequalities of income and the tendency to pay lip-service to poverty eradication. The other bane of the eco­nomic and social scenario in Pakistan is corruption, estimated at Rs.100 bil­lion a year in 1999. Mr. Wolfensohn po­litely yet emphatically mentioned the scourge of corruption as an impedi­ment to development and investment.


Perhaps he was aware of the official view in Pakistan that corruption has been eliminated at least at the highest levels. So he mentioned precise figures of slippage of Transparency Interna­tional’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) from 2.6 in 2002 and 2.5 in 2003, to 2.1 in 2004. A CPI deterioration de­spite `elimination of corruption at the highest level’ can only mean an in­crease in corruption at the middle and lower levels! Mr. Wolfensohn as such concluded that the problem of corrup­tion still exists in the system; probably the diplomatic under-statement of the year.


In the context of economic develop­ment, the real stress of the Bank seems to be on the development of social sec­tors and poverty alleviation. The Presi­dent announced a financial package of one billion dollars a year for three years to support economic growth and the development of social sectors like edu­cation and health, which provide direct relief to the poor.


The present government is strongly committed to poverty alleviation and higher outlays for the social sectors. Al­locations for these programmes were raised to 4.7 per cent of the GDP in 2003-2004 from 3.8 per cent of the GDP in 2001-2002. The Bank’s Presi­dent pleaded for increased expenditure on these sectors, particularly education and rural development.


The World Bank President’s overall emphasis seems to be on the need for decisive action to bring about basic changes in the system – translated op­erationally, the attitudes and practices prevalent in society. And that is where the main failing of this society lies. We, for decades, have been committed to equitable distribution of incomes, rural development, increased productivity and increased expenditure on the social sectors. But what we have actually ac­complished is concentration of wealth in the hands of a few families; one of the lowest productivity levels; 52 mil­lion illiterates; one hospital bed for every 1531 people and around 4.8 chil­dren borne by a woman in her repro­ductive years.


These figures are some of the worst in this region. Figures for poverty tell a similar story. After declining to 17.32 in 1987-1988 from 40.24 in 1963-1964, the percentage of the population living below the poverty line has increased to 22.40 in 1992-1993 and 35.20 in 1998­-1999; the present level is estimated to be around one-third of the population.


Not all governments have been sleeping over the issue: they have reg­istered their commitment to poverty alleviation and the social sectors by appointing committees, fielding stud­ies and creating departments to for­mulate plans and coordinate pro­grammes. The result has been exactly what happens in undertakings fi­nanced by foreign grants. Anyone with even a remote relevance to poverty jumped on the bandwagon. Instead of developing a conceptual framework and demarking responsibilities, ongo­ing programmes and those in the pipeline were converted into poverty alleviation components. These people were unenthusiastic and did not allow their component to go under the con­trol of the poverty alleviation outfit. As a result, poverty alleviation became a collection of projects conceived and developed by different departments of the government.


The research studies and surveys to measure the incidence of poverty and propose measures to tackle it, fell vic­tim to academic controversies over the definition of poverty and methodolo­gies. Vested interests within the gov­ernment approved or disapproved the results safeguarding their own inter­ests. The coordination function, on oc­casions, became so messy that officials and departments attached to poverty programmes were appointed, termi­nated or disbanded arbitrarily. Conse­quently, sometimes even innocent pub­lic documents were kept secret. Even today, myriad documents roam offices and research outfits which do not point to a single policy or strategy to eradi­cate poverty. A highly encouraging macro-picture of the economy should help to shed the verbiage and formulate a national policy on poverty alleviation – even if it amounts to a complete re­hashing of the existing approach.


For poverty alleviation programmes to succeed, what’s needed is not only a portfolio of projects in the field, but also a well thought out strategy to change people’s attitudes – not neces­sarily the community development ap­proach. The culture of wastage and cal­lousness in poverty-stricken communities contributes to poverty just as fatalism hinders the efforts to reduce it. No amount of material assistance will lessen the impact of poverty unless people learn to conserve their re­sources and cut wastage. This makes education, especially of women, the cornerstone of a poverty alleviation programme. For a programme of social change, the people will have to be made capable of determining the right priorities and take intelligent decisions. This cannot happen without education. Health is a part of the trio of change. Also, economic prosperity through the provision of employment opportunities and equipment will not be fully utilized unless there is the will to work for changing one’s destiny – generally taken to be pre-determined.


A well-integrated programme ac­commodating the aspirations of the people and aimed at bringing about so­cial change should be the vehicle to pull people out of poverty. In the rural areas, a crucial input would be an ar­rangement to pay the lifelong debt maintained by landowners and the feu­dal system which is the main instru­ment of subjugating the rural popula­tion. As the first step, a villager has to be free to take independent decisions for his welfare.


It must be realized that the culture of wastage and callousness in poverty­stricken communities contributes to poverty, just as fatalism hinders the ef­forts to reduce it.

Poverty Alleviation

October 20, 2008

The Poverty Game


Readers may recall this writer’s arti­cles about the federal budget emphasising the impor­tance of correct figures, especially those for the in­cidence of poverty. How­ever, the government and its depart­ments in their – by now familiar abandon – threw up figures that showed a signif­icant decline in poverty during the golden period that the nation is passing through.


Newspaper reports relate that the chief economist of the planning commission disagreed with these figures as he estimated them to be higher by two points. This difference, by no means, is earth-shaking. The real issue is the push­ing of figures that suited the government. The time-honoured scientific and honourable – convention is to give a range to accommodate different points of view. Why did the government – including the prime minister – choose to give only one dispute figure, as the official version speaks volumes about out moral standards?


I regret the digression. In this article one wanted to say that it was not the de­cline or rise in poverty levels measured by one or the other method which was important. What really mattered was the relief and protection provided to the poor to cope with circumstances prevail­ing in society One is conversant with the myriad definitions of poverty and that there is no consensus on a definition of poverty or formulae for its determina­tion. This lack of agreement has found an easy way out – population living on less than a dollar a day and those living on less than two. Figures accruing from these criteria do provide an indication of the availability of some basic needs but they remain oblivious to feelings of poverty and the amount of deprivation that individuals and their families expe­rience for being poor. And that is where the statistical derivatives and macro pic­tures become silent.


Wealth in the prevalent capitalistic system of economics has no upper lim­its. Poverty, on the other hand has no lower limits. It can start with starvation and reach complete social denial besides other deprivations. That is where a bi­ased view of poverty and a fair degree of indifference to the plight of the poor take birth. Poverty essentially, is a relative phenomenon. The dominant economic and political classes in the present dis­pensation try to confine the discussion on poverty to basic needs like food, shel­ter and sundries. Rights of the people to education, opportunities for vertical mobility, and the chance of standing in line with the power elite, are never men­tioned in the context of poverty allevia­tion.


On the other hand, a doctrine of the innate incapability of the poor to rise in society or to participate in intellectual or managerial skills is preached viciously. How can the ruling elite of Pakistan com­prising feudals, big industrialists and the elitist elements in civil and military bu­reaucracy, even think of granting oppor­tunities to the common people to have a share in the power structure? The few who do rise to high positions against all odds are quickly trained to adopt the at­titude and mannerism of the power elite through initiating them into exclusive clubs, elite societies, fads, fashions, de­signer brands and a code of behaviour under which every people-friendly ges­ture is categorised as `unbecoming of an officer’ or say below the dignity of the ruling class.


What in our hapless countries come to pass as poverty-alleviation pro­grammes comprise plenty of rhetoric and some projects shifted from the regular development programmes of other sec­tors? Pertinent questions to be asked about the anti-poverty strategies of the developing countries are: do they include any programme to directly uplift the poor socially and politically? Do they open opportunities extended by new technologies for the poor and their chil­dren in the same numbers and as smoothly as for the rich and the power­ful? (Do not be deceived by the availabil­ity of cellular phones, a television set or a motorbike. They, in quality and quantity, are a fraction of what the elite happen to have).


Do the children of the poor have the financial means and connections to go to elite schools or even the ordinary English medium schools? Are the poor invited to any functions held by the government at any level even to witness an occasion or see a dignitary? (They are supposed to feel awkward at such events.) Have our elite ever tried to encourage a poor per­son or a member of his or her family to rise in life by way of a few words of en­couragement or meaningful help? What’s worst is have we left any confidence in the poor to think about participating in life of the nation even by casting their votes independently?


In fact, the poor in our countries have been kept at the level of slaves who work to keep their masters in power by their labour, providing services which nobody else would, and voting the elite into power again and again. Every pro­gramme for relief to the poor is designed to let their conditions climb by a small notch essentially to enhance their capac­ity to continue the good work they have been doing for the affluent for genera­tions. Thoughts contrary to this system are dubbed as the product of the follow­ers of the leftists led by Karl Marx, and dumped.


One mentioned above that poverty is a relative term. Even if countries with well-orchestrated poverty reduction pro­grammes succeed in raising the standard of living of the poor by a rung or two, a jump in the living standards of the rich is ngmy times higher than that of the poor. This inevitably leads to widening of the gap between rich and-poor -The’resultant phenomenon is the concentration of in­comes and wealth at the top while the miniscule increase for the poor is so thinly spread that it hardly makes any dif­ference in the life of the deprived. They, in reality become emotionally and men­tally poorer; especially when their mobile phones and the television sets are ob­tained against loans to be paid over many years to come!


What we need is not the decrease in figures for poverty alone. Instead we should start thinking of bringing the poor out of the abyss of oppression and tyranny and provide them with the op­portunities to claim their rightful place in society denied to them so far. Can we shift our attention from figures now and talk about something more tangible and the immediate consequence to the poor of this world whose numbers are in­creasing all the time, if simple happiness and fullness of life are taken as the crite­ria?