KARACHI / LAHORE: Salma Faheem has not spoken to her husband, Mohammad, since June. That’s when he dropped her and their three children off in his home village of Dalma in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa because he could no longer afford to have them living with him in Karachi.

Now, instead of living in one room in an urban slum with water on tap and a gas-powered cooker, Salma has to walk an hour every day to fetch water and she must cook her family’s meals on a wood-fired stove.

“I hate it here,” she said by phone. “I loved it in Karachi.” Her husband is not happy either but he feels he had no choice.

Many families divided as men forced to remain in cities while women, children sent back to rent-free dwellings

Cash-strapped Pakistan’s $350 billion economy is in meltdown with low growth, a weak currency and spiralling prices. The pain is being felt most keenly by those living on low incomes in cities.

Some have decided that the only answer is to leave or to send their families back to their home villages, where they can live more cheaply thanks to family networks and assets.

Faheem, 33, found the Rs35,000 he earns a month as a furniture handler and loader could no longer stre­tch to cover food, rent and tuition.

“In the village, the house is ours so it is rent-free,” he said. “(But) I loved having them around. I miss my children.”

Like other developing countries, Pakistan is heavily reliant on imports of oil, gas and other commodities, and has been hit hard by the Covid pandemic, the global slowdown that followed the war in Ukraine and floods last year that submerged a third of the country.

High fuel and energy prices have pushed inflation to 31.4pc year-on-year in September, up from 27.4pc in August. A $3 billion loan programme, approved by the IMF last July, averted a sovereign debt default but reforms linked to the bailout, including an easing of import restrictions and a demand that energy and fuel subsidies be removed, have thrown oil on the inflation fire.

With no relief in sight, some pe­­­ople in this nation of around 240 million are cutting costs the only way they can: by moving home to their villages.

“The decision to return to our hometown was not an easy one,” said Waseem Anwar, who moved with his wife and five children to the small dusty town of Chowk Marlay, about four hours from Lahore, in May.

His wages as a water filter and sanitary fittings installer could no longer cover rent, utilities, medical expenses and tuition in the city.

“Although the work opportunities here are not as plentiful, the reduction in my overhead expenses to about half … has provided great relief,” said Anwar, who now works as a plumber.

There is no immediate data available on the total number of people who have moved back to villages in recent months, but researchers cite substantial anecdotal evidence ba­­sed on dozens of conversations with so-called reverse migrants and their relatives.

“We cannot change the economic direction of the country because of our limited mandate, but we are trying to alleviate the sufferings of our people,” caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Our action against illegal foreign exchange speculators, wheat, sugar and fertiliser hoarders, and smugglers of oil products has paid off,” he said, adding that authorities had also recovered over 15 billion rupees from electricity thieves.

Policy experts say the government should support poor households by lowering taxes, such as sales levies, in the short term and introducing a targeted subsidy system, which could help narrow the fiscal deficit.

“If even a part of the untargeted subsidy to energy (among others) can be targeted, it would make a big difference,” said Haris Gazdar, dire­ctor at the Karachi-based Collective for Social Science Research.

Gazdar said that while the recent trend of reverse migration would not have major economic impacts immediately, because workers would likely return to cities once the economy picked up, it could lead to “longer lasting” problems with, for example, many children being taken out of schools.

Published in Dawn, October 13th, 2023

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