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Friday May 24, 2024

When living gets tough

By Khalid Bhatti
September 23, 2023

The people of Pakistan are neck-deep in a sea of rising poverty, soaring inflation and high unemployment. They were expecting some relief from the caretaker government, but the current setup has quashed all such hopes.

The caretaker government has dropped another petrol bomb on the already struggling people. The government increased petrol prices by more than Rs26 and diesel by over Rs17 per litre, last Friday for the next 15 days. This is the third straight rise in the prices of petroleum products in one and a half months.

The record high prices of diesel and petrol are likely to cause another wave of hike in the prices of essential items. Vegetables, fruit and other food items will become even more expensive. Travelling will become pricey as well as fares are likely to go up. Ordinary people (mostly from the working class) are paying the heavy price of an economic crisis they never created. They are not responsible for the current capitalist crisis, but they are the ones who are bearing the brunt.

The flawed economic policies of neoliberalism and free market implemented by the ruling class have caused this crisis. But it is evident that the ruling elite is not ready to share the responsibility for and burden of the crisis.

People are angry at the situation they are forced to live in. Widespread discontent does exist in society. We have seen angry protests against expensive electricity bills across the country. It is true that the protests against inflated electricity bills were not massive, but they still point to the anger brewing in society.

We have witnessed a mass movement that erupted against the taxes and expensive electricity bills in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), where people made clear how angry and frustrated they were because of inflated bills.

The situation has all the potential to go out of control – in almost all parts of Pakistan – if the ruling elite continue to burden people with taxes and price hikes. They are no longer in the position to tolerate this burden. For most of the people, life has become increasingly painful and miserable. An overwhelming majority of the population now find it hard to survive; electricity bills have become a nightmare for them.

People now have to make a soul-crushing choice: either pay their electricity bills or feed their children. They are forced to make even more hard choices – choosing between food and medicine, or choosing between providing education to their children and paying their ever-increasing utility bills.

It has become increasingly difficult for poor workers to feed their families despite working 10- to 12-hour-long shifts every day. The pace of soaring inflation has outpaced the meagre increases in wages.

The middle class is shrinking at a fast pace after being hit by the current economic crisis. The lower middle class is feeling the pain of this economic crisis as well. Poverty, inflation and unemployment are rising at an alarming rate, while there seems to be no solution in sight. Anger against the ruling elite is on the rise, with people having strong resentment against the country’s elite. So far, the anger has been brewing under the surface, and has not yet boiled over onto the streets. But the situation signals that things could finally be heading towards that point. Time is running out for the ruling elite.

More than 240 million people have been living in a crisis-like situation since 2018. A severe economic crisis hit the economy and people in 2019-20 as the PTI government entered an IMF programme. Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit the already struggling economy and people even harder in 2020-21. When the economy started to recover from the pandemic-induced crisis, it got affected by the 2022 catastrophic floods that led to deep fractions in the economy.

Nearly 33 million people in Pakistan were affected by the severe flooding that caused $40 billion in economic damage. Millions of acres of farmland were washed away, and crops were destroyed. Unemployment and poverty increased, and inflation went up to record high.

Pakistan is still recovering from those catastrophic floods. Although the international community has pledged more than $10 billion for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of flood-affected areas, Pakistan is still waiting for this money.

The people of Pakistan continue to live in an economic crisis that started due to high inflation, a depreciating currency and low reserves of foreign currency. We have seen three governments in the last five years and several finance ministers but they failed to overcome the crisis.

We continue to blame one finance minister after the other for the crisis we are forced to live in. People’s favourite punching bag is Ishaq Dar although the truth is that all finance ministers – including the blue-eyed boys of the IMF and the World Bank – have failed to overcome the crisis and provide relief to the struggling people.

This crisis is the result of the failure of the neoliberal economic model and its flawed policies. But instead of blaming the model and free-market economic policies for the crisis, the blame has been shifted onto a handful of individuals. It is important to accept that the main cause of this crisis is the neoliberal model and the inherent contradictions of the capitalist system.

Capitalism as a social and economic system is failing the poor and the working class around the world. The neoliberal model of capitalism is based on profits, free movement of capital, free trade and deregulated markets. It works well for the capitalist elite but deprives the poor and the working class of essential services, needs and utilities.

How strange is that our ruling elite is trying to solve the economic crisis through the implementation of the same neoliberal economic policies that caused the crisis. It is time to rethink our economic strategy and policies. Let’s think beyond the IMF and neoliberal solutions.

The writer is a freelance journalist.