Unequal Pakistan

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Arif Azad

SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association)

IN the din of the dharnas, a major survey on inequality went unnoticed. In mid-October, the PEW Research Centre released findings of its global survey on inequality. The majority of those surveyed in Pakistan saw inequality as the most pressing concern. This finding should have been breaking news for the 24/7 media obsessed with issues of terrorism, Kashmir and sit-ins.

That the latter issues pale in comparison to the central concern of inequality pointed out by the respondents speaks volumes for the misplaced priorities and fruitless preoccupations of our new broadcast media. This is underscored by the fact that these findings did not make headlines anywhere except in the print media. The real issue, as obvious from the survey, is the perception of growing inequality as the main problem, one that is capable of disabling Pakistan now and in the future.

What is more, while 48pc of those surveyed in Pakistan expressed optimism regarding social and economic mobility in the country, in India and Bangladesh, the proportion of parents expressing a positive view of their children’s future was 67pc and 71pc respectively. Clearly, this shows that the prospects of social mobility and greater equality are considerably dim by about half the population in Pakistan.

Where these finding should have served as a clarion call for political classes and uniformed state managers, the reaction has been strangely muted. This is in sharp contrast to a growing trend of sustained concerns about inequality.

Across much of the world, inequality issues are as much of a worry for the political class as for the common people. The result is a perceptible migration of these issues to the top of the political agenda.

In Britain, Labour is building up its election campaign on the back of the rising cost of living. Implicit in this are its concerns regarding rising inequality. The intellectual ballast to this debate has been supplied by Thomas Piketty, a French economist, in recent months. His book Capital for the 21st Century, based on two centuries of historical data, establishes that inequality has risen more sharply in recent decades, with the rich becoming richer and the poor growing progressively poorer.

Piketty shows that inequality results when returns on capital exceed the rate of economic growth as indicated by the GDP. According to Piketty, over centuries, inherited wealth has been one of the causes of further enrichment of the already rich as a result of faster returns. When set against these trends, Pakistan seems on a backward trajectory where equality and income are concerned.

For the last decade, poverty figures have either not been released or fudged to mask growing inequality and social mobility issues. Yet there is, weirdly, a profound lack of political outrage despite the evidence mounting before our own eyes. Political parties are the most culpable for not discussing these issues and for not acting in concert to address them. The PPP has hardly moved beyond its lip-service to the notion of ‘equality is our politics’.

The PML-N, that is historically not a party of the poor, loves to bury the defining issues of our political times in the construction of shiny roads and encourages the dream of the prosperity tide that will carry everyone forward.

Yet its fire sale of state assets in the name of privatisation is contributing to a situation where the pauperisation of the masses is proceeding apace unchallenged, and accentuating the existing inequalities.

At the other end, the revolutionaries, joined together by a common hatred for the Sharifs, have only scratched the surface of the inequality issue, without offering ways and means to address its root causes. Regardless of this, the revolutionary cousins have struck a deep vein of unease regarding the growing gulf between the rich and the poor.

Pakistan seems poised on the edge of a huge social explosion being fed by this growing gap between the haves, the have-nots and have-a-lots as showcased by the survey. But the political rage and will to address these issues has yet to gather force to shock us into action.

The anti-Ayub agitation in 1968 was fed, partly, by the perception that the former president’s economic policies were at the heart of making, and fattening, 22 families at the expense of the rest of the population. This deep-rooted grievance of a profoundly unequal Pakistan lit the fuse of the long-gestating movement against the military dictatorship.

Since that decade, things have worsened. The ranks of those beaten up economically have grown exponentially with no ameliorative political and public action in sight. Unfortunately, the current political class as a whole does not inspire much confidence on this score.

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