DR S. Akbar Zaidi speaks at the event on Tuesday.—White Star
DR S. Akbar Zaidi speaks at the event on Tuesday.—White Star

KARACHI: “When we speak about the political economy of a country, it is interesting to read theory. But one also needs to see how these theories can help society today,” said renowned academic, political economist and newly appointed director of the Institute of Business Administration Dr S. Akbar Zaidi at the launch of New Perspectives on Pakistan’s Political Economy — State, Class and Social Change organised by the Applied Economics Research Centre (AERC) at the University of Karachi here on Tuesday.

Dr Zaidi, who is also the co-editor of the book with Prof Dr Mathew McCartney, also spoke about the late social scientist and historian Hamza Alavi whose work is mentioned in depth in the book’s preface. “Hamza Alavi did a world of research on military, the business community, the landlords and bureaucracy of Pakistan. But his research, thoughts and observations are relevant to the Pakistan of the 1960s and perhaps not that much to the society of today. In order to know and understand today’s society, we have to see what is happening on the ground. For instance in theory we all know the importance of taxation but then there is also the ground reality that here in Pakistan tax is not generated like it should be as many people do not pay their taxes here. Therefore, you cannot force theory where it can’t be applied,” he said.

About the book he said that it points towards the changes in Pakistan’s economy while looking at various indicators such as rural and urban life, employment, sources of income, people, their potential, etc. “With an 18 per cent GDP, Pakistan is no longer an agriculture economy,” he pointed out before talking about employment and what changes have taken place there along with the source of income of people in rural and urban areas.

“Places have become more accessible with people coming closer thanks to telecommunications, media, etc. Things are becoming interlinked,” he said. He also spoke about how social media was affecting lives here and how more women stepping out of their homes and getting good education were contributing to the feminist economy.

Book on political economy, social change launched

Providing his views on the book, Prof Dr Riaz Shaikh, dean, Faculty of Social Science and Education Department at Szabist, said that even though the nature of economy in Pakistan has changed in the past 70 years or so, the mindset of the people here is more or less the same even though Pakistan as a part of the global society is also bound to change. “We have been missing the politics of urbanisation,” he said. “Urban politics has now captured Karachi’s politics which is based on the struggle of classes and from class politics it is moving to sectarian politics,” he said wondering if this is now an overdeveloped state using biopolitics as a tool to marginalise certain people such as the ‘missing persons’.

He also spoke of the role of the media and journalists, how freedom of speech and expression were curtailed etc. “But after 2007, the media here has played an important role in teaching a lot to the Pakistani establishment though now there is also a business content emerging within the media as a result missing many things in the national discourse because the media doesn’t want a hostile response from the government,” he said.

Dr Shaikh said that the nature of development in Pakistan also needed to be looked at more closely as one province was feeding and developing itself on another’s resources.

Senior journalist Khurram Husain, meanwhile, spoke about how it has become evident about who really represents the state from the recent meeting of the army chief with the business community. “The businessmen were complaining about taxes and saying that the structural change was killing them but the government is not backing down. They are told that they were willing to listen to them and help them but within certain limits or constraints,” he said, reminding also about the mini-budget of early last year which was to serve as a revenue exercise though the billionaires were still having their way during it all at least until former finance minister Asad Umar left and the state got its voice. “Class in Pakistan operates at some points and not at others as class is heavily fragmented,” he said.

About the book and other books like it, he said that sadly the last people to read them are the ones about whom these books are written. “If the people you are writing about are not reading about themselves, then you must think of how to make your writing more meaningful to them,” he concluded.

AERC director Prof Dr Samina Khalil also spoke.

Published in Dawn, January 15th, 2020