Numbers paint a cruel reality – Rafia Zakaria


The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
PAKISTAN is a country in which the accident of birth determines everything. The household you are born into, how rich or poor it is, who your parents are, what clan you belong to and what your ethnicity or faith is will decide the details of your life.

If you have the good luck to be born into a wealthy home, say, to a feudal family or to a father who is a high-ranking official in the military or belongs to a business conglomerate, your life will be good. You will be educated at excellent schools, where highly qualified teachers will invest in your future; you will go abroad to study spending four years footloose and fancy-free in some Western country with your travels funded by family money. When you return to Pakistan you will be handed a business or lands to manage or stock portfolios — in simple terms you will lead.

On the other hand, if you are born to a poor home, you’re out of luck. Even if you manage to educate yourself, even if you work as hard as you can possibly work, if you use every opportunity you can to better your circumstances, the outcome will be the same and you will fail.

Most people already know these truisms even if they pretend that everything is a possibility for everyone. Last week, the United Nations Development Fund provided some numbers to prove these facts. Their latest report, titled Power, People and Policy, reveals just how stark the disparity is. According to the data, economic privileges adding up to $17.4 billion are divvied up between feudal landlords, the largely militarily owned corporate sector, and the political class. In the words of the report, “Powerful groups use their privilege to capture more than their fair share, people perpetuate structural discrimination through prejudice against others based on social characteristics, and policies are often unsuccessful at addressing the resulting inequity, or may even contribute to it.”

Greed and entitlements are not limited to class. They are also structural and institutional.

In simple words, if you do not belong to one of these “powerful groups” you will inhabit an altogether different Pakistan, whose realities by and large are anathema to the wealthy decision-makers that rule the country.

Greed and entitlements are not limited to class, the elite lording it over the poor as they do. They are also structural and institutional. The hard-working, poor individual, the one who does everything possible in the hope of achieving something better in life, can be likened to the fate of the country’s largest city, Karachi. According to the UNDP report, 56 per cent of federal tax revenues and 84pc of provincial tax revenues are produced by the city of Karachi. However, Karachi’s share of national public expenditure is meagre and shameful and less than 5pc. The budget of the Karachi Municipal Corporation, for instance, is a pathetic $149 million, a pittance compared to its similarly sized Mumbai counterpart, whose budget is $4.6bn. The consequences of this neglect are visible to each and every person who visits Karachi. Water scarcity, power shortages, illegal settlements, lack of waste disposal, urban pollution and land grabbing are all-pervasive, with no one making any effort or using any resources to improve the situation.

The focus on Karachi is important. According to the report, nearly 10pc of the country’s population lives here and many people are in the city for the specific purpose of pursuing a destiny different from the one created by the circumstances of their birth.

Last year’s monsoon season brought the city to a virtual halt, with people stranded on the roads, thousands of businesses and homes flooded, wastewater and sewage flowing into the streets and alleyways as a result of broken drains. It was a disaster that was acute and devastating in a city used mostly to disaster. In this new year, however, no efforts have been made at all to avert or prepare for a disaster of the kind we saw last year. Karachi fills the country’s coffers with its tax offerings and yet all it gets is the country’s offal. In this sense, Karachi is the poor man who gets the degrees, works hard, aims high and yet gets kicked around.

The promised welfare state that was supposed to solve Pakistan’s problems has never materialised. If from the immense chasm between the country’s wealthy — the feudal lords, who own 22pc of the country’s arable land, the corporate class, which gets the largest share of privileges and entitlements, the military that has a dual role in the security and the corporate industrial complex — and the average person, a welfare state has not materialised it never will.

Numbers cannot be cruel, but they can tell cruel stories. The story that this latest UNDP report tells is of a country mired in cruelty, where the rich take from the poor, where the place that deserves the most attention and that produces almost 20pc of the country’s GDP is left fetid and rotting and neglected simply because it is the home of the little guys and not the overlords. This is a shameful situation, but of course the elite robbers are so practised in justifying their corruption, hiding and covering their booty, that they no longer feel shame let alone guilt.

The consequence is a primitive state of affairs, where the wealthy, who are also the political class, the military elite, the corporate bosses, want things to stay the same and so they will indeed stay the same. One wonders whether another UNDP report is even necessary; as the graphs in this one show the only sure thing in the country is decline, a destiny where the poor are fed lies, robbed and left to count down the minutes to the end of their blighted existence.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

Published in Dawn, April 21st, 2021