Impoverished districts

Published February 12, 2022

GIVEN decades of lopsided and uneven ‘development’, it was inevitable that the different regions of a province the size of Punjab would have significant social and economic disparities. A new UNDP report — South Punjab Regional SDGs Indicators Comparison with Centre and North — has only confirmed what is already known to most people and policymakers: the impoverished southern districts of Punjab are lagging far behind the rest of the province, both in social and economic indicators. The data produced by numerous government and independent research studies and surveys over the last two decades shows that the majority of the districts of southern Punjab are among the most underdeveloped and deprived in the province in terms of basic public services such as health, education, safe drinking water supply, sanitation etc. because of years of underinvestment by successive governments. As a percentage of its population, south Punjab has a significantly higher incidence of multidimensional poverty compared with the central and northern parts of the province. Thus, it is not surprising that the prevalence of stunting and wasting among children in the southern districts of the province is much higher than in other parts. So are child labour and child marriages. Likewise, infant mortality and gender disparity are also above the provincial average.

The government’s development spending data shows that the social and economic lag in the underdeveloped southern region of Punjab has exacerbated over the years — even with an increase in provincial financial resources — as the bulk of public development funds are spent on large infrastructure projects in the more affluent central or northern regions of the province. Historically, south Punjab has suffered because it has fewer development allocations than its share in the provincial population and received even less than what was committed in the budgets at the cost of its impoverished citizens. Although the PTI administration has ring-fenced development funds for the resource-starved southern region for bridging development gaps with the northern districts, the allocations are not sufficient to address the acute socioeconomic differences and deprivations of the population. The government has to do much more for bringing this disadvantaged region up to the developmental level of the rest of the province. The rulers should know that recognition of the existing disparities alone will not tackle the growing socioeconomic and political tensions in south Punjab. But reductions in regional disparities on a fast-track basis may achieve the goal.

Published in Dawn, February 12th, 2022

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