It is sad to watch politicians indulge in power games while the majority struggle for just survival. Pakistan has dodged sovereign default thus far, but the worsening economic crisis is already plunging the vulnerable population into a whirlpool of misery.

The evolving situation matches the textbook definition of a humanitarian crisis: “a series of events that are threatening in terms of health, safety and wellbeing of a significant segment of society”.

Since 2020, life has been harsher for the masses, from the pandemic fallout to floods to crushing inflation and rising unemployment to water, electricity and gas shortages/outages, lawlessness, political chaos, and intensifying terrorist threats.

Some commentators expressed surprise over the level of public tolerance to hardships in Pakistan. Others warn of simmering steam of public anger in the society, beneath the veneer of normalcy, that can burst out anytime, spill on the streets and turn violent by some trigger.

There is some fear in certain quarters that any small random incident can trigger chaos, with the impoverished masses taking to the streets and inciting violence

“It would be lame not to expect any public reaction. Punishing leaders at the ballot will come later. When life becomes cheap compared to the worth of a sack of wheat flour, anything can trigger a chain of ugly events leading to uncontrollable chaos. If people, cosy with families in the comfort of heaps of wealth, think they will be immune to disturbance, they might be in for a rude shock. It is in the interest of the tiny elite of the country to step up, part with a portion of amassed riches, in service of the country, to save the rest,” said a watcher.

It is clear that the casual crisis talks about debt distress, climate change, energy deficits, limited resource mobility, donor demands and the International Monetary Fund programme have not resolved anything. The preoccupation of experts with root causes, development hypermetropia and dissecting politics also appear misplaced. Promises by friendly nations and multilateral agencies may serve political optics, but only the immediate transfer of sizeable funds can afford some breathing space for the sliding economy.

To deal with a dire situation such as the one Pakistan is faced with, the United Nations guidelines dictate a strategy reflecting vision, innovation, human-centred design collaboration, venture philanthropy, passion and perseverance. How many of these ingredients are embedded in the government policies, public discourse or opposition’s plans is anybody’s guess.

“The harrowing images of the public falling over each other for a bag of atta and flood-displaced families languishing in an excuse for shelter confirm our worst fears. The country is headed towards an abyss unless attention is diverted towards fixing the economy with a more equitable order,” commented a disturbed young analyst.

Recent UN reports shared facts on some dimensions of poverty in Pakistan. According to Unicef, about 18.9 million girls marry before turning 18 and 4.6m before 15. They are forced into closely spaced difficult pregnancies. Of the many million affected by floods, United Nations Population Fund reports, 650,000 were pregnant women without access to healthcare facilities.

Unicef reported 400 child deaths in floods last year and injuries to many more. The agency estimated as many as 3.4m kids urgently needed help to ward off risks of waterborne diseases and malnutrition as they lacked shelter, access to safe drinking water and live in unsanitary conditions. Even before the floods, over 5m school-age children were out of school in the country.

Nasim Beg, an asset management expert on multiple boards, talked bitterly about public sentiments, “It’s just a matter of time before an event will trigger an avalanche. A possible reason why it has been averted thus far could be well-funded charities operating in the country saving people from starvation.”

Elaborating on the uneasy calm, he said: “The factory lay-offs are relatively recent and the victims must be dipping into whatever meagre savings they have, which will run out soon. People of Sindh and Balochistan have unfortunately been conditioned over generations to consider sub-human living their fate.”

The economic downturn in Pakistan has not spared any sector. From auto to pharma to home appliances to oil and gas to engineering to fertiliser to cement to other construction allied industries to textiles, there is news of complete and partial closures almost every other day.

Better known companies that pulled their shutters down or scaled-down production include household names such as Dawlance, Diamond Industries, KSB Pumps suspended production at its Hasanabdal plant, Pakistan Suzuki, Indus Motors, Balochistan Wheels, Kohinoor Spinning Mills, Nishat Chunian, Suraj Cotton Mills, Crescent Fibers, Fauji Fertiliser Bin Qasim closed Diammonium Phosphate plant, Millat tractors, Eli Lilly Pakistan, Fresenius Kabi Pakistan, etc.

“For people to react and to be seen reacting, one needs an urban environment, not the countryside. When big cities start going dry, we are likely to see reactions which can snowball very quickly. Perhaps the public reaction will force the country towards course correction,” said Mr Beg, trying to locate a silver lining.

Commenting on the role of underreported digital jobs as a source of relief, he said, “online incomes may be there, but if we take, say 1.5m youth joining the labour market each year, I would reckon that not more than 10 per cent can make a living off ITC. Another factor we can’t ignore is the home remittances from family members living abroad. That amount is a staggering Rs6 trillion plus”.

Dr Vaqar Ahmed, associated with Sustainable Development Policy Institute noted, “Two things are shielding households of the lower middle class: remittances and workers migration to GCC region”.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 16th, 2023

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