Opinion News
July 15,2015

Heat, death and poverty

Dr Shahnaz Khan
Almost every aspect of the recent deadly heatwave in Karachi has been discussed in the media. Causes of this calamity: climate change, heat bubble, lack of water and power, incompetence and callousness of authorities.
It’s impact: over 1300 dead, shortage of beds in hospitals, morgues running out of space, stench of dead bodies piled up on roadsides, mass graves, the never-failing spirit of volunteerism in Pakistan. Proposed remedies: more trees, better health infrastructure, improved governance, restoration of water and power supply, less corruption.
One thing everyone agreed upon was that the majority of the victims were poor and homeless. Having none or limited access to life-saving amenities like shelter, water and electricity, debilitated from chronic malnutrition, with high disease burden, they succumb easily to any extra stress. This fact was acknowledged by all. The charitable souls whose efforts make life somewhat bearable for these ‘children of a lesser God’ were praised and prayers offered for the dead and their families advised to be patient in the face of adversity.
And after many had died, some higher-ups woke up from their slumber and left their air-conditioned homes, got into their air-conditioned cars and came to pity the poor who were lying in overcrowded hospitals where there was no water, no medicine, no electricity and where the citizens of Karachi were trying their best to alleviate their suffering – which for many came in the shape of death.
But that is where the discussion stopped. There was no outrage against poverty, no discussion about its causes and no proposals to remedy this problem. It is almost as if everyone has accepted that poverty is part of life – normal and natural, it has always been there and always will be, and any effort to try to eliminate is against nature or otherwise futile.
It is suggested that it is in God’s plan that some will be rich and some poor. It is suggested that the rich are rich because they work hard and are ambitious and the poor are poor because they are lazy, stupid, and have no ambition to get ahead. And the best others can do is to be compassionate, God-fearing, and throw charity at the problem and in the process secure a place in Jannat for themselves. And this is true for any disaster – natural or manmade.
We need to dig deeper into this problem. Is poverty ordained by the Divine? Who created economic inequality? Who tells politicians to devise a tax policy that allows them to evade taxes; levy more indirect taxes to burden the poor and keep direct taxes low, siphon of national wealth overseas, set minimum wage which is not even enough for sustenance. Who set up a system of graft, interest and rent? Who allocates all sources of wealth generation to only a few? Who wants this world to be unequal forever and ever? Who is responsible for lack of access to education, skills and jobs, healthcare, shelter, and all the other life’s necessities and wants?
The fact is that economic systems are manmade. The current system has led to a situation where there is not only extreme income inequality between rich and poor but, even worse, higher wealth inequality. Those who have more can make more through interest, graft, rent, corruption and their influence on policymaking and state institutions.
They allocate a meagre amount in the budget for education, healthcare, and other social services of masses for the masses, while sending their children to private schools, flying to foreign countries for healthcare, driving imported cars and enjoying other luxuries. They impose indirect taxes on the poor to impress the IMF about their sincerity to increase tax collection, while sparing the rich from direct taxes. The end result is a class system where the poor are trapped in an increasing cycle of deprivation, poverty, hunger, and disease for generations.
So, here are some proposals to remedy this situation. In order to make distribution of wealth more equitable, we have to eliminate the control of a few on the wealth-generating sources of the country: land, mines, industry, banking and everything else. Control over politics and state institutions has to be wrenched out of their hands because they will not let go voluntarily. Some would argue that this sounds too militant. But why is this term always used against masses who are in majority and are fighting for their rights? In fact it is the militancy of the few rich and powerful that is oppressing the masses.
Taking this stand pits us against very powerful forces, which have international capital’s backing, which are well-organised, well-resourced and united, and who will never accept and agree to anything that erodes their power. The only way that can be done is through an organised, united, well-planned and long-term mass struggle.

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