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Monday July 22, 2024

No country for the poor

This is a great country to live in if you are rich with a vast army of the poor is there to serve you

By Shafqat Mahmood
July 11, 2024
A representational image showing a young girl carrying an infant. — Reuters/file
A representational image showing a young girl carrying an infant. — Reuters/file

This is a great country to live in if you are rich. A vast army of the poor is there to serve you. Cooks to prepare your meals, maids to look after your children, drivers to cart you around, cleaners to shine your floors and gardeners to make your roses bloom.

And then, there are private clubs, exclusive housing estates, elite schools and colleges and purpose-built hospitals to cater to every sneeze and ache. These islands of prosperity shine as a beacon among whirlpools of poverty.

I wonder how many focused on the sale of premier number plates that recently took place in Karachi. It was a real eye-opener. The gentleman who bought the most sought-after number -- Sindh 1 -- dished out a cool ten crores. Imagine! He was not alone though. Over fifty crore rupees were raised in this auction of egos.

Everyone has a right to spend their tax-paid money in whichever way they like. No one is questioning that. In fact, kudos to the Sindh government for mopping up spare cash. Only that in this case, the sheer extravagance of it stood out. It was a shock and awe moment in a country where a vast majority is struggling to survive.

This extravagance is not limited to car numbers. I am told that there is a restaurant in Karachi – allegedly owned by a Sindh official -- that is selling beef steaks for fifty thousand rupees apiece. And people are buying. Again, if they can afford it and are paying their taxes, who are we to question? But it just doesn’t seem right in a country where millions of children grow up stunted because they don’t have enough to eat.

Dubai Leaks, which threw some light on the behaviour of the Pakistani rich, was significant in two ways. It showed that, despite serious economic woes at home, we are the second-highest buyers of Dubai properties. We outbid Russian oligarchs’, Iranian expats and the Egyptian nouveau riche.

This massive investment abroad shows a disturbing trend that is seldom publicly recognized. It is the worry the elite have regarding the country’s future. There is a subliminal fear that their money and way of life are not safe here -- that something cataclysmic could happen. Therefore, properties abroad are insurance against any such catastrophe.

As is a foreign passport. Dual citizenship is rife among the rich and powerful. Very few actually want to live abroad given that replicating their luxurious Pakistani lifestyle would be impossible there. Yet dual citizenship is assiduously pursued and acquired as a measure of safety.

As an aside -- and at the risk of repetition -- let me point out an example of elite power within the country. Dubai Leaks was a big deal when it first appeared. But then, surprisingly, its newsworthiness turned out to be a two-day wonder. The story just vanished like a shooting star disappearing quickly over the horizon.

This was a miracle given our media’s proclivity to keep repeating news ad-nauseum. Something as juicy as the property details of the rich and famous, that too in a foreign land, just disappeared. We never got to hear endless details of taxes unpaid and black money unearthed. No scoops came regarding midnight raids, homes vandalized or spectacular arrests. Nothing. Not a word. Seldom has one seen a conspiracy of silence so strong or a coalition of interests so effective.

Being rich is not a crime and given the opportunity everyone would like to be one. The issue is one of balance in a state in which a vast majority lives a tight existence. According to some estimates of inequality in Pakistan, the top 10 per cent earn 42 per cent of the national income and the bottom 50 only 13. According to the latest World Bank estimate, 40 per cent of Pakistan’s population has slipped below the poverty line in 2024.

Some of the statistics regarding children are harrowing. It has been repeated often that 24 million are out of school which is a shame. But even more shocking is that 44 per cent of our children under five are stunted; that means their growth is not what it should be. And this is largely due to malnutrition; meaning not getting enough to eat. This by the way is the third highest percentage of stunting in the world.

One can keep quoting statistic after statistic showing various aspects of poverty and underdevelopment, but the issue is: what have we done about it? Here too elite capture of power has skewed our priorities. We have spent scarce resources on solving problems that help a relatively small number at the cost of the majority.

Take transport. Around the world, the mass means of transportation is the railway system whether it is people or goods. It is also the most cost-effective. We were fortunate to inherit a reasonably developed railway system and if branch lines are counted, it covered most of our territory.

It was also the principal means of transportation for everyone, rich and poor alike. For the poor it meant more because they had no other means to travel but till the late eighties the Railways was still the preferred means for everybody.

We allowed it to go to rot. No real investment was made to either expand the network or keep the existing infrastructure up to date. The latest we hear is that it is not even a priority for CPEC.

Instead, we spent billions on motorways and continue to do so. Motorways have greatly benefited car owners and some public transportation but nowhere near compared to what an efficient railway system would do. Even after thirty-odd years, it is difficult to carry goods on M2, between Lahore and Islamabad, because the trucks have difficulty going up the Pabbi hills.

Housing and urban infrastructure is another example of elite-centred development. Since the seventies, millions of acres of agricultural land has been appropriated for housing colonies that cater to the elite. All sorts of concessions have been given for them to come up and billions spent by the state on urban infrastructure to cater to them.

A small example of how scarce resources have been spent just for the elite is the mania for signal-free roads and under/overpasses. Billions have been invested for the likes of me not having to wait a few minutes at red lights. We love it but the poor run the gauntlet of speeding cars just to cross the road. No one is bothered even to build enough pedestrian bridges.

While all this is happening for the elite, nothing has been done to provide decent housing to the poor. The state and the private sector which has been so innovative for the well-heeled has had no bright idea to do something for them.

There are a thousand examples I can give but the main point is that even in scarce government spending we have prioritized the rich and done virtually nothing for the poor. If this continues, perhaps the elite fear of things falling apart may come to pass.

The writer served as the federal minister of education in the PTI’s federal government. He can be reached at: shafqatmd@gmail.com