The incumbent government has always been shy of publishing precise figures for the actual levels of poverty in Pakistan. The linkage between an unpopular government and its failure to reduce poverty is not an election winner, but on Monday a detailed report was published on just how poor we are. The picture that emerges is that there is no uniformity about poverty in Pakistan, and that rural Pakistan is a far poorer place than urban Pakistan. There is no uniformity across the provinces either, and as much as this is a picture of poverty, the report by the Sustainable Development Poverty Institute (SDPI) is also a picture of relative wealth. Fuel prices are universal in their application, and yesterday’s rises are going to hit the rich and the poor equally, but the impact of the rises will not be proportional with the poor less able to absorb the increase than the less poor.
One third of our population live below the poverty line – 58.7 million people – and 21 percent of all households fall into the category of ‘extremely poor’. One-third of rural households are extremely poor compared to only eight percent of urban households, a startling disparity and as clear a reason as any as to why the countryside is becoming depopulated by the flight to the cities. Unsurprisingly, Balochistan is the most poverty-stricken of the provinces. More than half of all households – 52 percent – live in extreme poverty, the most severe of the indices. Poverty in KPK and Sindh stands at 32 and 33 percent, reflective of the national average. Punjab is the least poor and thus, by definition, also the richest of the provinces with 19 percent of households living at or below the poverty line. Even within the provinces there are wide variations. Lower Punjab is poorer than upper Punjab, but is not rated as in ‘extreme’ poverty. Kohistan is the poorest district in the entire country – 89 percent in extreme poverty. Jhelum has only three percent of households living in any degree of poverty. Poverty is thus a patchwork of deprivation; it is not equally spread across the country and presents the greatest challenge to the poorest provinces. Unequal resource allocation means that mechanisms to reduce poverty, none of which are cost free, do not ‘trickle down’ to where they are most needed and the cities are growing at an unsustainable rate. The SDPI report could be a useful planning tool when devising poverty reduction strategies, but that will depend on whether the federal and provincial governments accept the reality of some uncomfortable figures. A strong political will has to play the decisive part for even the slightest improvement in the situation.