The poor have no choices

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

WHILE the Pakistan government goes to extraordinary lengths to laud its economic performance, economists have correctly pointed out the growing inequities that have been spawned by President Musharraf’s policies. (See Akbar Zaidi’s “Eight years of missed opportunities” in Dawn of June 10, 2007.)

It was, therefore, like a bolt from the blue to see the Pakistan Economic Survey 2006-07 attempting to prettify the state of poverty in the country by citing a few statistics to paint a somewhat rosier picture.

Needless to say, such number crunching in no way alleviates the pain of poverty for its victims. Perhaps the worst case scenario is one where the distribution of income is so uneven that it creates pockets of affluence in an ocean of poverty. The presence of this concentration of wealth, especially when it is flaunted unashamedly, is a sure recipe for social discontent and violence.

To get round the arguments of their critics, our economic managers have come out with the claim that “consumption inequality” is what really matters and in Pakistan this has increased only marginally from 2001 to 2005. Using this approach, the government tries to absolve itself of the responsibility of not doing enough for poverty reduction.

The Economic Survey admits that income inequity can be most damaging for a country: “High income inequalities act as a drag on the poverty-reducing impact of growth… the actual impact of growth on poverty cannot be realised if the initial distribution of income is fairly skewed. Countries with more equal incomes tend to reduce poverty faster with a given growth rate than countries with more unequal incomes.”

Seen against this backdrop, is it right to dismiss our economic inequalities as marginal and therefore of not much consequence? Is it correct to assess poverty in terms of consumption levels? Even the revelation that in the year 2001, the richest 20 per cent of Pakistanis spent 3.76 times more than the poorest 20 per cent is shocking. In 2005, this ratio went up to 4.15. In fact, in the urban areas, the richest quintile of Pakistan’s population spent more than 12 times than the poorest quintile.

These figures mask the real problems faced by those mired in poverty. Is it strange that an overwhelming majority of the children who die before they reach the age of five are the children of the poor? Is it just a coincidence that those who suffer from gastroenteritis — losing out on working days — and have to be admitted in hospitals are those classified as “extremely poor”, “ultra poor”, and “poor” in the index prepared by our policymakers? Has it ever struck us that because the poor cannot buy bottled water when the rich feed their pets with imported canned food, the former tend to suffer more from intestinal ailments? It is the poor who crowd our hospitals because they fall ill more frequently and need treatment but fail to get it.

It is time our policymakers realised that it is not simply a matter of generating more income for the poor. Of course, that would help but the spiralling inflation neutralises whatever raise in income the poor manage to get. What is more important is that they are provided the basic facilities that they are entitled to as a matter of birthright. The poor should be provided choices so that they can take decisions about important issues in their lives as they deem fit.

Take the case of Shahid, who works as a driver to earn about Rs8,000 a month. He finds it a challenge to make two ends meet. With a family of five (three children and two adults), he frequently takes loans because his household budget consumes his earnings fully — 25 per cent on house rent, 12.5 per cent on transport, 16.25 per cent on two children’s schooling, 41.25 per cent on food and home expenses like laundry, clothes, routine items, and five per cent on miscellaneous items.

One can, in all fairness, ask if Shahid has any choices. Any major illness in the family is catastrophic for his household budget. Off and on his daughters do not attend school because their father fails to pay their fees and the principal asks him not to send his children to school without their fees. The government school in his neighbourhood is so appalling that he would prefer to keep his daughters home rather than send them there.

What is worse is that poverty not only deprives people of choices, it also creates uncertainty and tensions for the future. What if food inflation continues to rise? What if his wife falls ill and he has no money to take her to a doctor? What if strikes disrupt life for a long period? What will he do when it rains and his house is flooded? What if a pickpocket robs him of his money? What if the bus is late in coming and he is late for work again? The list could go on and on. One has to be poor to understand how demeaning poverty can be.

The poor have no financial cushion to absorb the shocks of contingencies such as illness, emergencies and disasters. This creates mental stress for them that may lead to psychosomatic illnesses and even anxiety and depression. If most of the poor have no dreams and motivation, can one really blame them?

If the government were to actually attend to its responsibilities, many of Shahid’s anxieties would disappear. If the public sector schools actually started performing — even on an average level — quite a big chunk of the worries that haunt the poor would not be there. If the local government conscientiously saw to the provision of civic amenities, the poor could hope to get low-cost housing, clean water (so that they are not falling ill frequently), sanitation and uninterrupted power supply.

Are all these not important to the poor as to the rich? In fact, they need these facilities more than the rich because they have no choices. The rich have a substantial cushion and can spend their savings to buy bottled water, fix up generators in their homes, send their children to fancy private schools for the elite, and go abroad for treatment if they fall ill. They have plenty of choices. It is the poor who have no choices.