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Poverty of thought

June 06, 2010

In this picture taken on May 18, 2010, vendors and customers occupy a wholesale fruit and vegetable market in Islamabad. Across the developing world, families from Pakistan to Argentina to Congo are being battered by a double-digit surge in food costs that is fueling political tensions and forcing some to give up eating meat, fruit and even basics such as tomatoes. - Photo by AP.

Ours is a country where a handful gorge while tens of millions can't get one square meal a day. The income disparity in Pakistan is shocking in the rural areas, palatial havelis abut the dwellings of peasants who for generations have never stepped inside a school and live a life of virtual slavery. They are indebted to the landlord, in perpetuity, and can never escape the cyclical poverty that was the lot of their grandfathers' and with which they must now cope forever.


The situation may be marginally better in urban Pakistan but not by much. Mansions sit right next door to slums but very few people find that odd or unsettling. It's just taken for granted. Somehow extreme poverty is acceptable in this country, as is obscene wealth. It has somehow become ingrained in the collective mindset that misery is a fact of life that can be airily dismissed because “those people” are used to it. The rich can talk glibly because they eat three meals a day, own their homes for the most part, hire the poor at shockingly low rates to do their household chores and can turn to generators or tankers when there is no electricity or water.

A recent Swiss study has found that over 48 per cent of Pakistanis are food insecure. The number of districts believed to be facing 'extreme' food insecurity has more than doubled between 2003 and 2009, while the number of food-secure districts has fallen by 14 per cent. The human misery aside, any right-thinking person should also spare a thought for where this hunger-driven helplessness will lead us. Already, parents who can't feed their children are turning to madressahs where their kin are brainwashed into believing that the doctrine of hate is the final message.

Poverty must be acknowledged. No country can live with itself while abusing the basic human rights of millions of its fellow citizens. Pakistanis do not deserve to live in hunger and poverty, and it is clear that the situation is becoming worse with each passing year. The ranks of the newly poor are swelling. Parents are pulling their kids out of schools because they can either feed them or educate them. They can't do both. Naturally this leads to resentment and the production of a whole new cadre of radicalised youth that cannot pinpoint its place in society. Disoriented, these young men may be attracted towards the kind of extremist ideas that are tearing this country apart. A country cannot hope to survive if it denies its people so basic a right as food. Only insurrection can follow and that rebellion, when it happens, will be exploited by people of obscurantist bent.