Life on the brink

Published October 4, 2023
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

IN June of this year, the Pakistani government had issued two tenders to buy LNG on the international market but didn’t receive any bids.

Pakistan’s devaluing currency and lack of foreign exchange, coupled with the political turmoil plaguing the country, has apparently made it a bad risk. This means what it always means, which is that there is likely to be an even worse-than-usual shortage of gas in the country as it makes its way towards the winter months.

One way to cushion the perpetual bad news of life in 2023 is to present the bad news first so that even slight improvements can be touted as successes. In the spirit of that kind of spin, I am happy to report that in July there was a bidder: the commodities trader Trafigura.

Although there are no reports to indicate a deal, a buoyed caretaker government issued two new tenders for LNG recently. It expects to receive bids because of the slight improvement of the economic condition post the IMF agreement. When things have been hopeless for so long, even a tiny dilution of misery is worth celebrating.

And there is a chance that things in the future will not be quite as bad as this summer has been. Even though inflation rose in Pakistan over the month of September, and is now at an all-time high of 31.4 per cent, some respite came this past weekend in the lowering of petrol and diesel prices. Prior to this, prices had been at a record high and would likely have remained at that level had it not been for a decrease in global oil prices.

Together, the hope for gas supplies and the reduction in petrol prices may point to a less miserable road ahead. Inflation, according to the Ministry of Finance will likely continue to be high; but if you do have a place to live, despite housing prices being inflated, you might be able to cook inside it, and if you have a job, it may become marginally easier to commute to office and back. Given the way things have been, this almost seems like a vast improvement to a lot of people.

Too many are sleeping with growling stomachs that they have been unable to fill.

High inflation is not always a bad thing. Going by the sectors that have seen an increase in inflation, tobacco is one of the goods whose price has increased hugely.

Given that tobacco consumption is the cause of devastating health problems — everything from breathing problems to cancer — for so much of the population, one hopes that this increase will force some of those who are addicted to tobacco, to give up the habit altogether. It is not a pretty way to quit smoking, but quitting is quitting and whatever the reason, those who can no longer pay for cigarettes will reap the benefits of a decision that is being foisted on them by an economy gone bad.

More guerilla tactics may be required to deal with other inflated prices. The cost of recreation and culture in Pakistan (whatever this category must refer to) has also increased.

One of the reasons why economists who study inflation have found that inflated prices kill civilisations is because the cultural underpinnings that hold them together come under tremendous stress during times like these. The fact that the cost of restaurants and hotels has also gone up means that even simple pleasures like going out to eat with one’s family and friends have slipped out of the reach of many people.

There will have to be creative solutions to fill in this void and there is hope in what has always been a frustrating fact of Pakistani life. As the weather gets ready to turn colder, the resplendent nuptials of the elite class will begin to take place without any abridgement of their characteristically indulgent displays of wealth.

There is opportunity here for those looking for an evening out and some excellent people watching to boot. Crashing these events, especially the ones that are hosting nearly 1,000 people; can provide nice evening entertainment without a price tag. If anyone asks, the truth must be told: inflation has not touched the hosts and so they must pardon the uninvited guests.

This is not to make light of the curse that inflation has cast on most of the citizens of Pakistan. Too many are sleeping with growling stomachs that they have been unable to fill. Even more are risking their health by rationing medicines or delaying medical treatment because they cannot afford it. Too many are anxious because it is the first week of a new month and the rent and the school fees and the electricity bill (which is far more reliable in its appearance than actual electricity) are all due all at once.

It is easy to slip into despair in these moments, but despair is not the solution. However, since the solution is also elusive, humour and creativity must answer the call. When a situation appears unfixable it is in close proximity of the absurd and the absurd can only be laughed at.

Hope may be elusive in its whole form given the forecast that inflation will continue to increase for some time. However, bits and pieces of hope can be found by the optimistic and the committed and in times of privation, even these crumbs can stave off starvation.

The fact that petrol prices have been lowered, the currency appears to be at a level of relative stability and that inflation may cause many smokers to quit smoking are not enough for three square meals a day but nevertheless they can mean an adequate snack. In hard times, there is great valour in persistent optimism and that perhaps is the way forward.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, October 4th, 2023

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