By Raza Rumi
(An op-ed first published here)
As I sipped the tenderly brewed coffee facing the lush green golf course of a relatively new Lahore Country Club, the new reality of Pakistan became a little clearer. The sprawling premises of the club were a preserve of the Railways Department until the inefficient Pakistan Railways could not manage it and doled it to the new, oligarchic big business of Pakistan. Much ado was made when the land owned by the Railways was privatised and questionable deals were transacted in that moderately unenlightened era. Nothing came out of the public questioning and today a lavish country club, far removed from its downmarket environs, has sprung out for the affluent and the upwardly-mobile classes of Lahore and Punjab.
The classic barriers to entry created by the cliques that lord over Pakistan’s elite clubs is being undone. Pay a handsome fee now (way over a million rupees) and you are a member to this new “club” built on the ashes of the Raj steelframe, albeit, reminding one of the nasty remarks of Churchill on how the brown, rapacious Rajas would appropriate the space created by the wise and just colonists. As my host elaborated on the entry procedures to Lahore’s richy-rich club, I could not help but remember the compensation to a suicide bomber that has also increased over the years and now hovers between one to two million rupees. A grossly-overlooked fact is that the grinding poverty in the pockets of Pakistan, seemingly unaffected by the consumerist prosperity, is the key to our current turmoil and violence.
At the end of the day, the ideological battles, the foreign interventions and incursions aside, it is all about inequality and the fact that the poverty is now a mushrooming social reality. Apathy to the shameful criminal inequities is another visible trend. Take the new avatars of Pakistan – the media hosts at the leading television channels: the rants and ramblings overly obsess with ideology, of myopia and inward looking gambles. Let Pakistan follow Iran without a drop of gasoline; or let it be a Vietnam in the making forgetting that Pakistan’s heterogeneity and complexity defies even the best of sociologists and policy experts. Nowhere is poverty, especially that of the tribal belt, given the importance that it should be.
And when the international do-gooders want to do something about poverty they come up with packages that have been tried and tested across the globe with dismal results. How can piecemeal advisory aid impact in a gnawing and in-your-face policy vacuum? What happened to the FATA electoral reforms; plans to introduce local self-governance in the tribal areas; and the correction of draconian legal regime meant to advance the great game and colonialism? Above all, the much touted second and now third prong of FATA policy, namely development, employment and economic opportunity. The dehumanising poverty that facilitates selling the lives of young men in the name of esoteric jihad is nothing but years and years of exploitation and now a manifestation of unbearable poverty.
The truth is that Pakistan’s elites – both the political and the unelected – and their purported watchdogs are fairly oblivious to the fundamental reality of how the consumerist culture and emergence of Richistans in a sea of squalor and violence are aggravating deprivation, dispossession and hunger.
Never before has a predominantly agricultural country sbeen food-deficient and a victim of blatant capitalist speculation. Monopolies are not new phenomenon; however, cartels control oil, cement and all other elements of economic activity and survival. Yet, these are issues skirted around and a hapless civilian government, a product and victim of both the powerful elites and their machinations is the prime target of media critique. The corporate media not unlike India and other iniquitous societies is by and large indifferent to such monopolies and the capitalist machinations; much of its solution for inflation is executive control of prices.
The emergence of such Richistans is not restricted to Pakistan alone. Globalisation has to sell fabulous, vulgar wealth as a spectator sport and the ultimate marker of achievement. And the world’s war and oil industry have to fuel this all-pervasive greed.
True, the skewed growth during the last eight years has enabled many people to gate-crash into the world of elitism and create newer island-Richistans. The question is, at what and whose expense? Income and resource distribution have worsened and without a plan for redistribution there is no way to achieve peace, security and sustained progress in Pakistan. Sooner or later, the surrounding pooristans, tribalistans, conflictistans, violenceistans will gobble up these Richistans.
Estimates suggest that food price inflation have led to significant increase in Pakistani poverty levels. 20 percent inflation in food prices theoretically results in an 8 percent increase in the poverty head count. And, the official estimates suggest that the galloping inflation is above 30 percent. We are heading towards a situation where 50 percent of the population will be poor. Needless to mention, this situation ought to be the foremost priority of the State and its international partners. Domestic rhetoric on ideology and the global rants on terror can only destabilise Pakistan further that is in no one’s interest. The ruling party needs to revisit its social agenda and reclaim its original redistributive ethos. This is the time for initiating land reform; of increasing access of the poor to productive resources and undoing the structural roots of poverty. These policy priorities must drive the stabilisation packages proposed by all and sundry. The urgency of the storm, which has brewed for long time, needs to be recognised. It is already thumping the fragile contours of Pakistani society.