Living is a terribly difficult occupation. The truth of the matter is that you start dying the moment you are born. If your parents can afford to protect you against fatal diseases, you can hope to survive long enough to achieve adulthood where there await multiple hardships, challenges and traumas that have to be braved with a valiant face. Once you are past your prime and venture over into old age, life seems to take a numinous quality of its own. At that stage, all you can really aspire towards is crossing over without enduring too much pain.
In such a way, the business of life takes its toll. Consequently, we invent exotic escapes, spend money on the latest products and try to make our short stay on this planet pleasurable. No wonder we have evolved into insatiable consumers, hell bent on the acquisition of the tangible, with absolute disregard for the (seemingly) intangible impact on future generations. So far in our inquiry though, we have assumed that you can consume and strive to seek the pleasures on offer. But, as the next few paragraphs will show, the vocation of life is complicated boundlessly when you add poverty and inequality to the mix.
Like many developing countries, the official poverty line in Pakistan is calorie and consumption based, and a final headcount is calculated after converting the household consumption level based on the recommended nutritional requirements of 2,350 calories per person, per day. According to a recent Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) report, as many as 58.7 million people live in poverty in Pakistan. If that number is not appalling enough, then take this into consideration: if you raise the minimum wage from its current level of $ 1.25 to a hypothetical two dollars (around Rs 200), as a World Bank study did, then a colossal 60.19 percent of the total populace still falls below the poverty line. Unsurprisingly, the provinces of Balochistan, Sindh, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa grapple with the vilest forms of this menace.
Revealing though these numbers might be, they still do not come close to depicting the true nature of the issue. As Haris Gazdar has shown in his essay “Poverty in Pakistan” in Fifty Years of Pakistan’s Economy, these consumption/nutrition/income based poverty measures cannot truly illustrate the increasingly complex landscape of poverty in Pakistan. Under the traditional rubric, some crucial forms of poverty remain hidden. A more constructive way would be to define poverty as all conditions that restrict equal and unhindered participation in the economic, social and political life of the community. For instance, even though an individual might have a sufficiently high level of income, illiteracy might prevent that individual from equally partaking in society. Similarly, societies rife with gender inequality might become home to capricious forms of segregation, even after elements like individual income, consumption and education have been taken into account. Such forms of poverty translate directly into rising inequality.
But if that were all, we could at least begin to address the issue. Sadly though, there is more. The alarming issue is not inequality itself but inequality of opportunities. Pakistan has a higher incidence of poverty compared to other regional countries but the Pakistani variant of poverty is also deeply structural. So not only do we have more poor people, they are, furthermore, beached in poverty with absolutely no chances of escape. What this means, at the risk of sounding clichéd, is that the poor remain poor over generations. Unfortunately, in countries like Pakistan, the accident of birth more often than not decides whether your toddler’s hands will nurse the gleaming pages of a pre-school textbook or be scorched by the forbidding fires of the brick furnace.
To counter such hindrances, numerous methods have been put into practice by the Pakistani state, with varying levels of success. From the Sasti Roti (cheap bread) Scheme (subsidising flour consumption), Benazir Income Support Programme (cash hand-outs to the poor) and the Green Taxi (employment for the literate) Scheme, it seems that we have seen everything under the sun. So far, the only aspect common in such endeavours is that they all neglect the root causes and instead try to ameliorate the symptoms. Likewise, higher taxation for the rich has also been tried and shunned almost instantly once the political ramifications were made all too evident.
But it is not equality in terms of wealth we need, but rather the equality of opportunity. Putting the same amount of money in everybody’s pocket is an unsustainable and even undesirable solution, and some argue that to do so would be the end of all competition and human effort. However, promoting equal opportunities for all is easier said than done. One barrier policymakers have run into is how to go about removing subtler hurdles, as is evident in the case of dismal educational performance by some students from poor backgrounds, due to issues such as identity and comfort level, despite them being awarded tuition waivers and scholarships.
An added facet of the debate is that the poor are more noticeable everywhere. Stop at a traffic light in your luxury sedan and you encounter beggars. Go for a shopping spree in high-end malls and you are bound to come across the needy and the poor. And, no matter which city you live in, you will find the lush villas almost always neighboured by slum-dwellers. However, such is the level of apathy towards the poor that we either choose to ignore them completely, or else just tuck them away neatly into the outskirts of our ever-expanding metropolises.
It is no surprise that our society is now more fragmented than ever. Economic inequality directly transforms into social and political marginalisation that leaves no hope for any improvement in the predicament poor Pakistanis find themselves in. I will stay clear of prescribing any solutions, since there are much more qualified personnel than me to resolve this hydra-headed problem. However, if we are to ever overcome this debilitating obstacle, we as a nation will have to develop a consensus on how much space we are willing to give to the disadvantaged within our midst.