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Youth on the streets

September 16, 2012

AMONGST the biggest problems Pakistan faces is a very basic challenge which is sometimes conveniently forgotten — that of the population boom. Pakistan is one of five countries in the world where every generation is double the size of the one preceding it.

A 2009 British Council study documented that almost half of all Pakistanis were below the age of 20. As many as two-thirds of them were below the age of 13, making the country one of the biggest ‘youth bulge’ nations in the world.

You see the young in various roles; in urban areas the burgeoning population of boys cleaning car windows and selling trinkets or cheaply produced Chinese stickers at traffic lights is a common sight. As Pakistanis we have become used to them, and almost disregard them as minor irritants of everyday commuting.

I talked to two such boys at traffic lights in Karachi and Lahore, both cities which face the usual problems of a metropolis with a high rural-to-urban shift ratio.

I talked to Yousaf at a traffic light near Boat Basin in Karachi, a popular spot for cafés and fast food. He had the usual panoply of trinkets on him that boys such as him carry around, ostensibly for selling. He offered me a sheaf of Mickey Mouse stickers for my kids, which I politely refused. He then resorted to begging, which is actually what these boys tend to do.

I asked him why he was carrying merchandise when he was obviously just begging for money. He replied that it was to give him an air of ‘genuineness’; if he just begged, people would not even listen to him, but many would give him a few rupees even when they didn’t want to buy his goods. This made him look more legitimate, he said. How many people actually bought these things, I asked. Shrugging, he replied that not many at all.

Din Mohammad, whom I spoke to at a traffic light in Lahore near Liberty Market, was more forthright. “The reason why you are talking to me, sahib, is that I am carrying my gajras [garlands]; if I didn’t, you would not even have rolled down your window,” he said. He pointed out a much younger boy, about six years old, who was begging around cars at a red traffic signal. “This is my brother. He is younger so people have more sympathy for him and thus he does not need carry anything for selling.”

Apparently, his mother was also around there somewhere in a burka pretending to beg independently of the two boys. “This brings in more money,” he explained. “If we begged together as a group we would be ignored, and this would reduce our income a lot. When we beg separately, somebody may take pity on me as a kid who is doing his best to overcome his poverty by actually doing work, and somebody else may have pity on my brother who is young. My mother has a prescription from a doctor saying that her husband is extremely sick and thus she needs money for his treatment.” I asked where his father was. “He’s a drug addict,” was his matter-of-fact reply.

These boys are part of a burgeoning youth population, individuals amongst a total of more than 180 million Pakistanis, many of whom are gravitating towards urban areas. Pakistan had an urban population of only around 17 per cent of the total population in 1951. This has increased manifold over the years. Since many cities remain largely underdeveloped, this rural-to-urban shift combined with the escalating youth bulge means that the provision of basic livelihood tools such as education and employment to citizens is under great stress.

Thus, many rural-based youngsters, who have little access to education in their villages and towns, have even fewer chances of being educated and gainfully employed in big cities where access to education requires more access to means of livelihood. And so, the vicious cycle continues, with settlers from rural areas engaged in eking out a living in order to counter the increased cost of living in cities, leaving little energy (and money) to allow their children to go to schools.

It has been reported again and again that the rural population here is predominantly clustered, even in ‘cities’ which have been given that status according to administrative structures. Many Pakistani ‘cities’ are not urbanised according to the definition of the word. Instead, they tend to be aggregate colonies where rural people have built concrete homes. The ‘city’ itself retains a very rural configuration in terms of service structures. Added to that fact is that in many of these places, as in a large number of villages, kinship groupings are ascendant.

The ‘street boys’ that emerge from these deprived pockets of rural-urban existence often develop psychological barriers that can prevent the penetration of ‘soft’ ideas. It has been documented by behavioural psychology that children who grow up in a culture of nurturing and whose basic societal and psychological needs have been constructively fulfilled develop resilience to the hard times they face, and are affected less than children who have not experienced normal childhoods.

Actively nurtured children are less likely to be deeply frustrated by difficult personal or social conditions, less likely to respond with violence to personal frustration, less attracted to destructive ideological visions and less likely to join potentially destructive movements.

Children who have not been actively nurtured seek out or are amenable to joining avenues that fulfil needs frustrated by social conditions. Such children are also more prone to resorting to violence as a medium of self-expression. Perhaps the growing violence in our society has seeds in the youth roaming Pakistan’s streets.

The writer is a security analyst.