Thursday June 30, 2022

Our middle class

June 15, 2017

Pakistan is no more largely an agricultural, rural society, where landowners hold sway over the economic, social and political space. Society has transformed from a rural, feudal one into one that is urban and middle-class.

The middle class in Pakistan can loosely be defined as the section of society that comprises households with a minimum monthly income of Rs50,000. A household on average consists of six members. If this categorisation is correct in a broad sense, the size of the middle class in our country has grown to nearly 50 million of Pakistan’s total population of 200 million. This estimate is not based on any scientific survey but on anecdotal evidence and social observations. However, one can argue that the size of Pakistan’s upper middle class is smaller, not exceeding 20 million at best.

The rapid growth in the middle class is conspicuous, especially in big cities. The proliferation and popularity of restaurants, bakeries, branded clothes, private schools, private hospitals and smart phones and the streets crowded with cars give a glimpse of the growing prosperity. At weekends and vacations, hill stations such as Murree get overflowed with tourists and the administration has to forcibly stop the entry of unending streams of tourists’ vehicles – a phenomenon that is recent and speaks of the increasing affluence and emergence of a sizeable middle class.

There are more than three million owners of cars and other large vehicles in the country; they can be counted among the upper middle class. An owner of a car on average represents a family of six people which brings us to the figure of 18 million. It won’t be inappropriate to classify all households owning cars and other big vehicles into the upper middle class.

The estimate of the lower middle class, however, is much higher. According to Pakistan Advertisers’ Society, 35.1 million Pakistanis are internet users while 28 million are active mobile social media users. Obviously, only those who can spare a reasonable amount from their essential expenditures can avail the facility of broadband internet on smart phones. Almost 8 million sacrificial animals were purchased to celebrate Eidul Bakr last year. Assuming one animal was for one a household of six members, we get near the figure of 50 million for the entire middle class.

As per the Pakistan Statistics Bureau, more than 10 million people in the country own motorbikes, but all the owners of motorbikes cannot be categorised as middle-income people as families of daily-wage labourers and small farmers with a per capita income of less than two dollars a day also own two-wheel vehicles besides small television sets and washing machines, and in some cases, small refrigerators.

Education statistics are also instructive. For example, half of Punjab’s school-going children attend private schools and a fair proportion of them go to high-fee schools and academies. Literacy figures also point to an expanding lower middle class. Literacy has risen to around 60 percent. Importantly, girls’ enrolment at the primary school level is rising faster than it is for boys and at middle level education, between 2002-03 and 2012-13, there had been an increase in the number of girls by as much as 54 percent compared to 26 percent for that of boys. At the secondary level, surprisingly, girls’ participation has shot up by 53 percent over the last 10 years, bringing them at par with boys.

Although this growth, largely in the lower middle class category, has occurred across the country, it is uneven in regional terms. The northern parts of the country including Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, northern and central districts of Punjab and urban areas of Sindh have undergone massive transformation whereas most parts of Balochistan, southern Punjab and Interior Sindh still lag behind and are mostly tribal or feudal in character and largely dependent on agriculture.

The middle class in Pakistan has a heterogeneous occupational structure in which members of the lower middle class are engaged in occupations similar to that of the poor, whereas the upper middle class is involved in knowledge services and trade. A sizeable portion of lower middle class families receive their incomes from expatriate Pakistanis working mostly in the Middle East. Currently, the country’s foreign remittances stand at nearly $18 billion. A sustained inflow of huge foreign remittances has played a significant role in bringing prosperity. A culture of tax evasion has also contributed to surplus funds with the business community and professionals. Further, a section of society is a beneficiary of smuggling amounting to at least $8billion annually through Pak-Afghan border.

In spatial terms, more than 50 percent of the country’s population lives in urban or semi-urban settlements. This is evident from data on access to urban facilities and services including electricity, education, transport and communication. Rural life itself is no longer agricultural as agriculture now contributes only 20 percent to the GDP. In the 2017-18 annual budget of Punjab, the agriculture sector contributes only Rs4 billion or 0.2 percent of the total budget amounting to Rs1,971 billion.

Unlike Europe where the middle class is mostly liberal and secular, the majority of the Pakistani middle class is socially conservative and ritualistically religious. Only a tiny part of it, mostly English-speaking, can be labelled liberal or secular. Pakistan’s middle class is distinct in the sense that it combines a feudal value system with the consumerism of capitalism.

Politics and religion are the major areas of interest for our middle class, which has little interest in art, literature or science. Its outlook is not scientific but superstitious and metaphysical. Conspiracy theories gain more traction than rational explanations. Most middle class people spend their surplus income on religious rituals. A portion of their savings goes mostly into food charity and some to hospitals. Endowments and donations for higher education and arts and literature are a rarity.

The burgeoning middle class is now making its presence felt politically with the country reverberating with its voices, on social media in particular. The regional and ethnic identities of the middle class and their peculiar interests, often at variance with each other, will determine the trajectories of politics in different provinces of the country. Political actors that will best adjust to the demands and aspirations of this new class will gain maximum from this transformation.