Economic powder keg

Published January 8, 2023
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

VULGAR is the word that pops into mind when witnessing the kind of politicking that seems to have become the norm in Pakistan, especially against the backdrop of a faltering economy, back-breaking inflation, mass joblessness and terrorism raising its cobra-like head again.

Pursuit of power is an integral part of politics as politicians and their parties can only fulfil their pledges and start implementing their manifesto once in office. But this pursuit must conform to democratic norms of conduct. It can’t be divorced from the ground reality.

Respected academic Faisal Bari, writing in the Friday issue of this newspaper, has illustrated with great lucidity what sort of economic hardship is being faced by the people and that even members of the socioeconomic groups that earlier seemed immune from the vagaries of the downturn are now feeling the pinch, and many desperately so.

When those with high five- and even low six-figure monthly incomes are visibly suffering, it would be pointless to mention the miseries of the shirtless, those on low incomes or the unemployed, given that inflation is at 30 per cent.

It is time our leaders acknowledge that radical restructuring is the only way forward and the days of the elite profiting from a rentier economy are over.

For the love of God, I can’t imagine how a family of four gets by even on Rs50,000 a month, double the minimum wage (you and I both know not too many make even that legal threshold), while having to pay rent, utility bills, school fees and, of course, putting food on the table. Must take some kind of magic, highly skilled jugglery to keep one’s head above water.

I have had journalist friends telling me they have had to shift to lower rent homes and move their children to relatively cheaper schools. And even then they can’t make ends meet. As a parent I can say the ‘downgrading’ of your children’s school must be the most heartbreaking thing to have to do.

Given the inflation, it is safe to say that the direct cash subsidies being made under schemes such as BISP to those at the bottom of the pyramid may help. But, hand on heart, tell me how many days the meagre cash transfers will enable a poverty-steeped recipient to put no more than just bread on the table?

Against this backdrop, political leaders — among them those dubbed corrupt as well as those officially certified ‘sadiq’ and ‘ameen’ — with their invective-laden diatribe against each other, mock the shirtless even as they enjoy their Gucci shoes/accessories, Yeezy trainers and Birkin handbags with hefty $$$ tags, their mansions and 40-acre estates.

Even the most ‘frugal’ among them travel in SUVs that cost so much I can’t even dream of buying one. That is, despite having worked for nearly 40 years and pretty much having been fortunate enough to get some of the best jobs in the media. Yes, they mock the poor. There isn’t another way to describe what they do. Who really cares for the have-nots, beyond using them in campaign slogans?

Let’s admit it. The system is designed and perpetuated by the country’s civil-military elite to serve their own narrow interests, while the teeming millions lurch from one hardship to another and celebrate as an achievement being able to survive from one day to another. Literally.

Not sure if they can see it from their cosy perches but the situation is fast becoming or possibly has become untenable. From outright narcissism to material greed to visions of grandeur, whatever makes our leaders tick, it is time they acknowledge that radical restructuring is the only way forward and the days of the elite profiting from a rentier economy are over.

There can be no escaping the need now for political leaders of different hues, in and out of government, to sit around a table and agree on a set of measures to revive the economy, a sustainable plan that spurs growth and job creation, boosts exports and cuts the eternally yawning current account deficit which is at the root of so many of our troubles.

The first and foremost aim of any economic policy has to be to target and eliminate poverty. Both sides of the political divide can blame each other for the mess but to an outsider both are culpable as they were short of imagination and ideas when there was space to make decisions of far-reaching import.

Pointless to talk about a defence expenditure cut as that is somehow seen as non-negotiable. But for how long. Many, many billions are given away in subsidies to the elite by the elite each year. These need to stop as they not only amount to plunder of national wealth but also distort the economy and make even the capitalist model we so lovingly embrace unworkable.

The next census will show whether Pakistan’s population is 205 million or 220m or an even higher number. What we know already is that over 65 per cent of the country’s population is under 30. The proportion of the younger citizens is increasing every day in the country’s population.

This huge young segment presumably in good health has 30 to 40 good, solid years of a working life ahead of it. It is often called the youth bulge. Any country with such a large number of young people, decades away from retirement and pensions, would be seen as an asset. They are.

But in a failing economy with rampant poverty and unemployment, this very asset can become a powder keg, a ticking bomb. Millions of jobless youth can get restive very quickly and unleash chaos. Can our leaders see this danger?

TTP terrorism is on the rise again. That challenge needs to be addressed in line with the concerns of thousands who have demonstrated for peace in Waziristan and Swat. Equally, steps to halt the economy’s downward spiral can’t wait. All we need is jobless-driven chaos in the rest of the country.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, January 8th, 2023

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