Home / Education / Special report: Misplaced discontent? | By Afshan Subohi
Special report: Misplaced discontent? | By Afshan Subohi, Pakistan, Economy, Economic structure, GDP, IMF, CSS, Current Affairs, 2015

Special report: Misplaced discontent? | By Afshan Subohi

THERE are tangible factors explaining the economic frustration in the country which make headlines every time it is expressed in raw, naked essence on the streets and fields of Pakistan.

Lynching mobs … mutilated bodies of the targets of hatred … selling one’s own children … slaughters and suicides … all such horrendous incidents involve otherwise normal citizens. It should ring alarm bells. But does it?

The positive economic indicators that the economic dream team of the country misses no chance to flaunt, did earn the PML-N government a pat on the back from the IMF. The electorate, for whom the democracy has so far proven to be joyless, is not impressed, suggests the countrywide random survey by Dawn.

It is hard to tell how far — or how close — the tipping point is, but the level of economic discontent is far greater than the rulers seem to understand. The precarious law and order situation and the resultant fear factor, the perceived threat to life and honour, probably masks irritation over economic hardship.

The bearings of economic deprivation and desperation on the rising trend of extremism and intolerance are well established. What has so far been overlooked is he persistently rising temperature in a society polarized along all possible lines. Add to it the proliferation of arms and the emerging picture seems scarier than scare.

The business class pretends to sound caring and tries to veil its greed by promoting concepts such as ‘corporate social responsibility’. Their leaders are reluctant to say it in so many words, but they believe the problem with Pakistan’s economy is more of wealth creation and not its distribution — not at this point at least. Politicians make all the right noises but only when in opposition.

The fact is that for people at large, balancing the family budget continues to be a tough task that just never ends. No matter how hard they try, the dice, they justifiably feel, is loaded against them. The static low wages in the private sector and limited job opportunities only add to their legitimate anxieties.

Desperate to prove their worth and loyalty to family, the conscientious ones work longer hours and multiple jobs. The weaker ones end up losing the moral compass. For them the end justifies the means.

People can’t be faulted for aspiring a decent life (food, shelter, clothing, education, health as well as water, sanitation, electricity and fuel). The earnings of an average family in Pakistan hardly support the subsistence cover. For millions, it is like asking for the moon.

The gradual distancing of the government from its role as the provider of free health and education and affordable electricity and fuel to the vulnerable majority did not make things easier for struggling households.

The situation, however, is further aggravated because of racing economic aspirations of people in a consumer-driven economy.

The deeper penetration of television and rising use of internet enhanced the level of awareness in masses. It also educated them about comforts that money can buy.

The aggressive marketing campaigns by businesses arouse demand even in the sections of society that lacks capacity to match it with requisite funds. The resultant stress has become toxic and disabling.

The minimum wage — Rs12,000 — is clearly insufficient to support a family in urban Pakistan. The absence of legal framework to monitor and regulate wage levels and lack of civic amenities force peasants to either get used to the idea of bare survival or migrate to towns to join the ranks of slum dwellers living in sub-human condition in towns.

The reason for little or no public protest on economic demands can be worked back to the apathy of the state towards the plight of the masses. Their experience has taught them not to expect the government to come to their rescue. When the country turned up stellar growth of over six per cent after the world rediscovered Pakistan in 2000, people were advised to patiently wait for the fruits of growth to fall in their lap. It did not happen then and it is not happening now and anytime soon.

Governments past and present of all shades and hues have urged the people to endure pain on a promise of gains later. Illiterate and ignorant, the people of this country may be; they are not stupid. As the survey shows, the masses are realistic. They know they have to do it themselves with the support of their family. The survey reconfirms the perception that low-income urban households in Pakistan are not supported by a single salary. People work multiple jobs and more than one member works in most urban families to make ends meet.

Besides theoretical critique of neo-liberal model, the explanation why the benefits of positive macro-economic indicators fail to trickle down is that a security state is perhaps structured to perpetuate disparities. It would, therefore, be lame to expect dispersal of wealth to the grassroots level.

The weak regulatory framework permits allows businesses the space to behave at whim, privatising gains and universalising losses. The market bereft of competition disregards compliance with social standards and depends on patronage more than innovation, efficiency and higher productivity to succeed.

And, finally, people in this country are culturally not inclined to work in collectives. It is for anthropologists to dig out the reason for such a behaviour, but the collectives have not proven to be successful in either rural or urban Pakistan.

Happy with itself, the political class and other powerful segments have done little to change the general perception of indifference, irresponsibility and the significance of patronage as the key to success and prosperity.

Published in Dawn March 22nd , 2015

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