Thursday, September 15, 2011

Taking poor and poverty seriously in Pakistan

By Riaz Missen, Pakistan Observer

Unusual and unexpected rains have rendered five million people homeless in 22 out of 23 districts of Sindh. The lack of response from home and abroad to the plight of the people is somewhat that needs a lot of soul searching. It is for sure that the flood victims of Sindh are little responsible for climate change that has send heavy rains on them. Most of them were already living at the subsistence level. They were already easy preys to hunger and diseases. Like millions across the country, they had been left with meager resources due to inflation and low GDP growth.

Many of the victims of erratic rains should have made their two ends meet with great difficulty in a society where feudalism is a reality and social injustice an undeniable fact. After rains they have been deprived of whatever valuable they had been left with. Women and children are exposed to extraordinary health hazards. The plight of these poor souls is not going to end when the rainwater recedes: there are no homes to shelter, no crops to cash on and no livestock to sell in the market.

Beyond Sindh, the situation is not that different as well. Statistics of this year (2010) have revealed that the residents of the twin-cities (Islamabad and Rawalpindi) are consuming 30% less meat than the previsions year. The apparent and visible reason is the shortage of animals which are being exported to Afghanistan and Middle East. Going into the in-depth and rigorous analysis of the situation one finds the reason in the depreciation of rupee against dollar. Down the line is the fiscal deficit that urges the government to print currency without any sovereign guarantee.

One way to get out of the grave situation is certainly the austerity measures as well as expanding the tax net but, certainly, lack of political will has been a problem of successive governments both democratic and dictatorial.

Poverty and poor have existed in Pakistan since 1947. More and more have joined this list since then. A UN Development Program report of 2003 has pointed out that at the time the country was growing at 10% rate (GDP), inequalities were as numerous as now. The wealth was being pushed into the hands of the few families through import/ export quotas, exchange rate manipulations and the regressive taxation system. When GDP growth fell to the average 4%, the population had increased three fold. What is a worrisome fact is that poverty is not natural.

It is essentially man-made disaster that is ultimately reducing the chances of peace and stability in Pakistan. After all, one can’t expect the desperate and hopeless youth, that now constitutes 65% population of the country, have no proper skills and talent to become the useful citizens because we spend less on education and persisting energy crisis has taken toll of businesses and industries. Flash floods of 2010 and heavy rains have added more poor to Pakistan.

The dictators who have ruled the roosts have managed the flow of wealth to few hands and did not have brains to contemplate that the concentration of resources in few hands would some time create crisis of human conditions in Pakistan. Imagine that this process of creating inequalities affected politics as well. So when there is democracy, the same affluent lot holds reins of power with little concern to revise the policies of the past. The people are poor because they have little access to health facilities and they have not enough food to consume.

The unhygienic working and living environment squeeze their chances to live long. So, it is quite natural that the people occupying the lower rungs of society die more due to dangerous but preventable diseases. The number of deaths among the poor segment of the society is high because they are discriminated by the decision-makers in terms of the provision of the basic necessities of life. Imagine that when the major burden taxes (75 % in the form of indirect taxes) is placed on the shoulders of the low and middle income groups, the amount spent on health, education and other basic amenities of life merely constitutes 3%. The stories of corruption of billions and evasion of direct taxes are numerous. Those who evade taxes also ensure that justice system remains paralyzed.

Among the poor and downtrodden, the children and women suffer the most. The fact of the matter is that 40 % women are anemic and 80% are exposed to danger of death due to not having access to the reproductive health facilities. So the maternal morbidity associated with pregnancy is among the highest in Asia. Infant mortality rate is also high because their mothers consume less iron in the time of pregnancy and because they are not vaccinated in time.

“The burden of poverty is getting heavy on women in the form of increased incidence of violence against them,” says Samina Ijaz, of CPDI. Revealing heart-rending facts about six poor districts of Punjab where she is coordinating a Gender Justice program, she grimly observe that many incidents of honor killings occur because husbands, fathers and brothers expect cash money in return of settlements with the family of the accused males.


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