What hurts is the rich-poor divide

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

POVERTY, an area of profound concern for economists in the Third World, has acquired enormous political connotations. It has come to be used as the yardstick to measure the performance of a government. It is therefore not surprising that policymakers make exaggerated claims about poverty reduction.

The Musharraf government is no exception. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz insists that the ratio of those living below the poverty line in Pakistan has come down in five years from 34.46 per cent in 2000-01 to 23.9 per cent in 2004-05.

Yet we have the critics lamenting the high cost of living. According to them, incomes have not risen proportionately. Hence the common man is in dire straits as he struggles to make two ends meet.

Who is correct? It really depends on one’s perception. When seen through the eyes of an economist, the picture of poverty is quite different – even rosy – from how an anthropologist sees it. The economist studies poverty through statistics which are by their very nature biased in favour of the formal sector. Anthropologists, on the other hand, view poverty as a relative phenomenon in a contextualised way against the backdrop of the distribution of wealth in society.

Obviously the anthropologist’s is the more realistic and human approach since bare statistics miss out the human dimension. This was most graphically and conclusively pointed out by Prof Jan Breman of the Amsterdam School of Social Science Research in a talk arranged by PILER in Karachi. The author of several books on labour, peasants and workers in the Third World, Prof Breman has seen poverty from close quarters as a social scientist.

Having carried out field research in Gujarat (India) and Java (Indonesia) over a period of 45 years, he certainly is in a better position to assess the pangs of hunger and the pain of disease suffered by the poor than the economists sitting before their computers in their ivory towers.

The topic of Prof Breman’s thought provoking lecture summed up his underlying thesis. He spoke on “Wishing away poverty, or the poor?” One key figure missing from the audience that evening was Mr Shaukat Aziz, who is the current architect of Pakistan’s economic policy. He would have benefited immensely from the lecture.

Speaking about Gujarat – and that is equally true about Pakistan – Prof Breman pointed out that he found a little improvement in some aspects of the living conditions of the agricultural labour when he returned 25 years later to the village he had studied earlier. The village now had a school and a health centre. Housing had changed and quite a few people were living in concrete houses. But the economic and social gap between the rich and the poor had increased. The poor felt they could not get any poorer. He used the term “pauperisation” to describe the state of the poorest of the poor when a person loses control over his life and lives in a stupor since he has no choices to exercise.

This is what is happening to the poor in Pakistan whose number is growing, Statistics do not tell the true story and can be deceptive. The fact is that the absolute number of poor is on the rise.

Today there are nearly 40 million people – on the basis of official percentages – who can be described as pauperised. In 1990, there were 29 million absolute poor as stated in government documents. What is worse is that the gap between the rich and the poor – the bane of poverty – is also growing and this is reflected in official statistics.

The State Bank Report 2005-06 tells us that the income inequality as presented by the Gini coefficient and the ratio of the highest 20 per cent to the lowest 20 per cent has widened during 2001-05. The Gini coefficient has gone up from 0.2752 to 02976 in the corresponding

period. The ratio of the richest and the poorest has increased from 3.76 to 4.15.

What should be a cause for serious concern is that the social impact of poverty and deprivation on the poor is extremely degrading. They rob the poor of their self esteem. When concurrent with poverty is the growing gap between the haves and the have nots, one has the perfect recipe for discontent, anger and alienation born of an acute sense of injustice.

The worst part is that the poor lose the will for collective action since they feel helpless and unable to change the situation. That also explains why they cannot register their anger and discontent in spite of their massive numbers.

It has been established by studies conducted by sociologists that a community where poverty is equally distributed tends to be more socially adjusted and in better physical health than a community that is cumulatively wealthy but with its wealth unequally divided.

Hence Dr Breman is more perturbed by the unequal distribution of wealth and the existing disparities rather than the fact of poverty itself. Besides when the cake is large and the slices are relatively equal in size even the smallest slice is not too small and can be filling enough to keep a person quite satisfied. He pointed out that there were people in his own country who were poorer than others but because their basic needs are met and the gulf between the rich and the poor is not so wide, the low income classes are not as badly off as the economically disadvantaged in Pakistan.

The millennium development goal calls for the halving of poverty by the year 2015. But such statistical targets, even if they are achieved, will not improve the lot of the poorest of the poor. The issue that really needs to be addressed primarily is that of the disparity of wealth between the various sections of society.

When the poor live alongside the rich – see the shanty towns that creep up to the boundary walls of the palaces of the rich in our cities – the psycho-social, economic and political repercussions of this phenomenon are devastating, more so when the rich are used to ostentatious living and flaunting their wealth.