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Suburban Pakistan vs the rest

September 25, 2017


The writer is a freelance columnist.
The writer is a freelance columnist.

EXISTING research shows that while Pakistan has seen a considerable reduction in poverty, income and consumption inequality remains quite high. Today, the top 20 per cent households in the income distribution consume five times more than the bottom 20pc. This is up from four times more just under two decades ago.

The visuals from our big cities help contextualise some of these numbers: large houses with sprawling lawns, and gaudy shopping malls populated by a handful of elite clothing brands and expensive restaurants, often lie mere minutes away from densely packed and frequently crumbling slum settlements.

The economic basis of entrenched inequality and immobility is fairly clear. For example, suburban Pakistan (convenient shorthand for big-city upper-middle-class and upper-class households) sends its kids to high-fee private schools. When these kids fail to do well in class, they’re provided expensive afterschool tuitions and coaching. The money spent on schooling and coaching buys high-status credentials, most commonly ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels, but now increasingly, the International Baccalaureate diploma as well.

These credentials and high incomes are used to finance higher education in good universities within and outside of Pakistan. The end result is shown by education advocacy campaign Alif Ailaan’s Who Gets the Good Jobs? report: on average, the starting salary of an individual who’s attended a top-tier private school is almost twice compared to someone who is unfortunate enough to have attended a public school.

The advantages don’t just stop with vastly different outcomes in the labour market. Thanks to a regressive taxation structure, asset differentials between prosperous and underprivileged households carry on for multiple generations. If you’re born in comfort, your parents will leave you and your siblings with a house or land of some kind (at the very least). For those in the lower tiers of suburban Pakistan — such as moderately successful government and military officials — the state provides a disproportionate asset bonus in the shape of heavily subsidised residential, commercial, or agricultural land to compensate for muted career earnings.

The underlying economic base for inequality is repeatedly reinforced through widening social network disparities.

This underlying economic base for inequality is repeatedly reinforced through widening social network disparities. Suburban Pakistan’s access to good schools and universities doesn’t just generate the right credentials and occupational skills, it also helps individuals interact and befriend similarly advantaged peers who ultimately become part of their social network. In times of need, when peer networks prove to be less useful, social networks of the household (especially of parents) — consisting of friends, colleagues, relatives — can be utilised for important acts such as landing the right internship or job. These networks are also considerably useful in resolving interactions with the state, such as resolving legal disputes or gaining preferential access to public services.

Finally, the most understudied and most contemporary reinforcement of inequality in Pakistan takes place at the cultural level. Over the last three decades, ample research in other country contexts has shown that cultural differences between individuals from varying backgrounds become key in reproducing rigid social hierarchies. Some of these are fairly obvious — such as, in our case, knowing how to read, speak and write English. Others are subtler, and create more fine-grained advantages, such as speaking the dominant language with the right accent, or sharing interests and tastes with people in positions of authority and power. Common examples of the latter are playing golf or polo, wearing not just expensive but also the right kind of designer clothes, eating at the most exclusive restaurants, and visiting the least clichéd holiday destinations. These cultural tools, often acquired through privileged upbringing and socialisation, can be and are often used to ingratiate oneself with superiors and power-holders, and secure real economic advantages such as a coveted job, a higher salary, or a promotion.

While many of these cultural ‘distinction games’ are entrenched and highly salient in advanced economies, they are increasingly gaining relevance in suburban Pakistan as well. Access to global trends through the internet and an expanded private media sphere have helped create highly segregated patterns of cultural consumption. Apart from cricket, or a Humsafar-level TV drama, there are few (if any) entertainment products that are shared across classes.

The entertainment spectrum now sprawls from Punjabi stage theatre for the masses to esoteric animated television shows enjoyed by a handful of globally plugged-in Pakistanis. Dietary patterns too have diverged sharply as the upwardly mobile catch up with burgers and shawarmas, the upper middle class makes love to chicken tarragon, while the elite now grows quinoa on their uncle’s farm.

Suburban Pakistan’s footprint on the internet, and, in particular, on social media is an excellent manifestation of its growing quest for exclusivity. It is currently chock-full of ‘entrepreneurs’ selling designer clothes, artisanal and handcrafted household products, and other niche items of frivolous consumption meant largely to signal superiority and authenticity of taste. These are then further displayed and consecrated through close-circuit lifestyle magazines (produced and) consumed by a small population in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.

Till the late 1990s, private members’ clubs in Lahore and Karachi were the ultimate markers of social and cultural exclusivity. They acted as both a signifier of class status as well as an integral way of reproducing privilege through powerful social networks. Now the nature of exclusivity has added a nakedly consumerist dimension, as demonstrated by a rapid turnover in what and who is considered fashionable and authentic.

One implication of social and cultural dimensions of inequality for Pakistan is that when the less privileged miraculously gain access to high-paying opportunities, they are likely to hit a ceiling of some sort. For ultimate mobility, they will have to wait for their subsequent generations to learn how to pronounce their Vs and their Ws, shop at the most fashionable places, and be instagrammed at the right restaurants and holiday destinations.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, September 25th, 2017