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Hard times & little hope

Updated June 28, 2019

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The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

JAVED works as a driver. His monthly salary is Rs20,000. He and his wife have four children and his father to support. The seven of them live in a one-room house. He is lucky that he owns the house so there is no rent to pay. His two older children work and make another Rs20,000 between them. He is trying his best to keep the two younger ones in school. The elder ones could not continue beyond middle school.

Life is hard and, though Javed has a very strong belief in God and destiny, he is not very hopeful that his lot is going to change in the near future. But he does hope that, if his younger children get educated, they may be able to have a better life.

He is able to make ends meet with the Rs40,000 that the family earns. But it is unanticipated costs that make life hard. His 70-year-old father fell ill a couple of months ago. In the developed world, on average, he would still be in relatively good health. In Pakistan, he is already pushing the life expectancy average. His diabetes and heart issues landed him in hospital for a week, which put Javed in debt. He has not yet been able to pay his employer back.

Javed has never received any help from the state, nor does he expect any.

A few months back, the hike in gas bills forced Javed to borrow from his friends. Last month, it was the electricity bill that played havoc with his budget. His accumulated debts are now starting to bother him. He does not know how long his creditors will wait, and he has no way of predicting when he will have any extra income to pay back what he has borrowed.

Javed wants to build another room in his house. One room gives little or no space to the seven people who share it. His daughters are getting older and, since they are mostly home, post work and school, they do need more space. His sons spend most of their home-time in the veranda.

But one room will cost almost two months of salary for the household. There is no institution that will give Javed this kind of money. He cannot borrow it from his employer or friends. But, even if he could, he would have no way of paying it back, so how does he even ask anyone?

His eldest child is a motorcycle mechanic. He worked as an apprentice in a workshop for five years and is now quite trained. Ideally, he would like to open up his own workshop and become an entrepreneur rather than continue to work as an employee. But he does not have any capital with which to start his business. He has tried his luck with a number of government programmes and microfinance banks, but there has been no breakthrough so far. Part of the problem is his poor education.

Javed’s eldest daughter works in a beauty salon. She also feels that she could open up a small salon in their locality. But the issue is the same: she has no capital with which to pay the advance for rent and to buy even the minimum amount of equipment that she will need.

Rising inflation, increasing fuel prices, increasing prices of electricity and gas have significantly raised Javed’s level of anxiety. He no longer knows if the Rs40,000 the family earns will be enough to cover even the basics anymore, or what will come next. He has been in his current job for a year and his employer is quite satisfied with him, but there is no job security. The employer could fire him tomorrow if he wanted to. And finding a new job takes time. The last time Javed moved, it took him four months to find a new job.

Javed has never received any help from the state, nor does he expect any. He did not qualify for help from the Benazir Income Support Programme and does not think he is actually poor enough to qualify for that category of beneficiaries. But he also does not see how he can improve his situation without help either.

He needs access to decent healthcare. This is the biggest source of his worry and the major source of recent shocks for him. His father needs regular medical attention. Javed and his wife have also turned 50. His high blood pressure is starting to bother him now. His wife has serious arthritis issues. Having health coverage could reduce uncertainties for him and his family substantially.

Access to subsidised loans or grants, for allowing his son and daughter to start small businesses could open up avenues for major changes in the life of this family. These loans would have to be carefully crafted to suit the needs of these small businesses, and might even have to be subsidised substantially, but they could result in potentially large gains for the family.

The younger children need access to quality education. If they are going to stay in schools, they need an education that will engage and challenge them. They have seen their elder siblings stay in school for seven or eight years and not even acquire basic numeracy, literacy, reading, writing and thinking skills. They feel that if they are going to ‘waste’ their time as the elder siblings did, they would be better off being at home and/or learning a skill. Can the state provide decent school education that this family can afford?

The government’s stated aims include the provision of social protection for the poor and equal opportunities for all. The Ehsaas programme was launched with a lot of fanfare as well. The success of the government will be judged on the basis of real change for Javed’s family.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, June 28th, 2019