A STUDY on poverty has brought Pakistan face to face with a reality that it will find hard to accept: every third Pakistani is caught in the ‘poor’ bracket i.e. some 58.7 million out of a total population of 180 million subsist below the poverty line. This includes more than half the population in the forever remote Balochistan, 33 per cent in Sindh, 32 per cent in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and 19 per cent in Punjab. These are daunting figures. But they are much needed for planning, especially when the government appears too embarrassed to release statistics related to poverty. The Sustainable Development Policy Institute, which has carried out this economic-mapping exercise, is justified in calling for the release of government figures and for a policy to combat acute poverty. These are facts which are being kept under wraps at great peril to the country.
Quite clearly, the dilemma as we know is yet to be overcome. Areas such as defence get the better of development; the more affluent are able to deny the less affluent in the name of sustaining themselves; and the small change that reaches the marginalised segments is never enough to pull them into the promised mainstream. The formula that channels resources and attaches due importance to the underdeveloped is yet to be found. Worse, an earnest search for such a formula is yet to begin. Consequently, development has proceeded in the only manner it could: the gap between the more privileged and the more backward has increased with time, even as successive governments have dangled ‘special packages’ in front of those with the greatest need. This reflects in social, political and, quite often, ethnic tensions, in revolts and in militancy.
The SDPI study identifies the 20 poorest districts, 16 of which exist in Balochistan that has been long agitating for attention. There are no marks for guessing that the other four poorest districts are also located away from the train of progress, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The exercise doesn’t identify the causes behind this continued and unfortunate disparity, but the basic factor responsible for the situation is not very difficult to list. The primary reason is the lack of proper, meaningful and non-discriminatory representation for all regions in decision-making. Those who are able to some extent participate in the running of affairs do manage to secure a better deal. Others are denied participation, and democracy for them remains an illusion. The first resource they are looking for is the space from where they can speak and be heard. This is the most essential prerequisite to progress.