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July 10, 2018

The problem with solutions


July 10, 2018

Various political parties that follow the same economic agenda are once again trying to muster support for the upcoming polls. They are all projecting the gospel of the free market economy as the ultimate solution to people’s problems.

For them, the principles of privatisation, deregulation and liberalisation, which have wreaked havoc in many parts of the world, are still a panacea. Politicians and their tedious acolytes may raise vociferous slogans against one another, but when it comes to the economy, they are all members of the same family.

No politician is opposed to the idea of disburdening the state of all economic responsibilities. They don’t want the state to interfere in private businesses. All of them are facilitators of private capital and want a system where profits are individualised and losses are socialised. They aren’t interested in ridding the country of an inhuman capitalist system that has adversely impacted the lives of millions.

In their view, those who live on less than $3 a day and struggle to make ends meet are non-existent. Over 60 million hapless Pakistanis, who are condemned to a life of abject poverty, feature nowhere on their list of priorities. Meanwhile, our political elite tend to be quick in offering amnesty schemes to the ultra-rich.

In light of this, should the vast majority of people who don’t have access to pure drinking water – and are, therefore, more vulnerable to 80 percent of easily preventable diseases – pin their hopes on these political parties? Are the parents of more than 20 million out-of-school children not justified in being sceptical towards the tall claims made by these parties regarding the provision of quality education? Is it illogical for workers who have lost their jobs during the privatisation process to show utter contempt towards the promises made by politicians to create millions of jobs?

This economic policy, which is propagated almost by all political parties, has created hardships for millions of Pakistanis. Let’s take the example of the privatisation of the Karachi Electric Supply Corporation (now K-Electric). Instead of improving the provision of power supply to people in the bottom layer of social stratification, it has added to their woes. The power utility has divided the city along class lines, with electricity being provided round-the-clock to the elite and middle classes while those who live in working-class neighbourhoods face power disruptions that last between 10 and 12 hours.

Even people who live in smaller houses tend to receive inflated electricity bills. The power utility issues one or two inflated bills every year to poor households and expect them to pay at all cost. As a result, the average bill of an 80-yard house falls between Rs7,000 and Rs10,000 a month. This happens in a country where the minimum wage of a labourer is quite low. No leader has dared to challenge this power company. So, the unbridled freedom that it enjoys prompts the company to continue exploiting millions of poor Karachiites.

The privatisation of education has also added to the woes of the poor in Pakistan. An MBBS degree, which could be obtained four decades ago by enrolling at state medical colleges for less than Rs20,000, now costs between Rs6 million and Rs10 million at private medical institutions. The poor cannot afford to pay such a large amount and pursuing medicine has become a mere dream for some students. The same can be said about obtaining degrees in engineering, computer science and accountancy.

Private schools are also ruthlessly exploiting the poor. Even small schools in working-class areas of Lahore and Rawalpindi charge at least Rs500 on average. This is in addition to the numerous charges they receive on various pretexts. How can a labourer pay for the education of his six children if his monthly salary is between Rs10,000 and Rs13,000?

Interestingly, the owners of private schools are often office-bearers in political parties. All major political parties are filled with the owners of private educational institutions. In Karachi and Lahore, some schools, which are run by JI supporters, charge as high as Rs15,000 per child in addition to receiving a hefty amount as admission and other charges. PTI leaders in KP have also been accused of running a chain of private schools. It appears that they are reluctant to make any improvements in the performance of government schools because it would directly hurt their business interests.

This has led to a rise in corrupt practices. For instance, a doctor who pays between Rs6 million and Rs10 million for his/her studies often charges exorbitant fees from poor patients. Doctors across the country are also acting as marketing agents for pharmaceutical companies and laboratories.

These companies tend to bribe doctors by buying air-conditioners, carpets and furniture for their clinics and hospitals. They also arrange family trips for them, in some cases to foreign destinations. In return, these doctors are expected to prescribe a plethora of medicines (especially injectables that carry high profits) and tests. They are also required to ask patients to visit famous laboratories rather than those at government hospitals for a variety of medical tests.

No regime of regulation seems to exist in the housing sector either. State land is sold at throwaway prices. In return, private companies sell them at exorbitant rates, making it difficult for the poor to obtain access to decent housing. Construction tycoons have also carved out niches in political parties. The PML-N and PTI have been accused of filling their party ranks in Punjab with these tycoons. Some of them have influenced various parties and institutions, and ensure that the state does not fulfil its basic responsibility to provide decent housing to the less fortunate.

So, political parties face a huge dilemma. If the PTI and PML-N launch ambitious housing schemes at reasonable rates, some of their party leaders who have been accused of ‘land grabbing’ and building elite housing colonies will desert these parties. The same would happen to Zardari. If the JI – which hugely benefits from the privatisation of education – and the PTI – which claims to have improved the education sector – start providing excellent quality education to the bottom layer of social stratification, they will lose financial supporters from Peshawar to Karachi.

If the parties are truly sincere with the people, they should promise that once they resume power, they will pass a law that makes it obligatory for parliamentarians and bureaucrats to send their children to government schools, obtain medical treatment at state-run hospitals, and drink water supplied by government companies.

Anything short of these measures will fail to alleviate the suffering of people who have always been deceived by political parties. The political elite live in gated housing societies. They send their children to Westernised educational institutions, consume water that is inaccessible to a vast majority of the population, and visit hospitals that a poor man can’t even imagine going to for medical treatment. How can the elite have any idea about the people’s problems? If the elite don’t use the same facilities that are used by the poor, how can they address the challenges faced by the impoverished?

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Email: [email protected]

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