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November 29, 2020

Increasing poverty stunting growth


November 29, 2020

LAHORE: The concept and dimensions of poverty have drastically changed in the last 70 years. Seven decades back, there was no hunger poverty in Pakistan when the poor otherwise were resource-less.

At the time of independence, Pakistan was the food basket of united India. Though the country was poor, the state and the civil society ensured that the poor did not sleep hungry. Food prices were very low.

Also, back then, state land was freely encroached to establish slums.

This was allowed to accommodate the huge influx of millions of refugees in the country.

Industry was scarce and small and cottage industries provided employment to most of the population of working age. Also, agriculture absorbed most of the workers as landholdings were larger.

A daily wager could afford one weeks’ food for the family on his paltry daily wage. Electricity was uncommon.

Two decades later, industrialisation picked up, which accelerated migration into the cities. As land became scarce, prices of rents started going up too, reducing the consumable surplus for food.

The poor could send their children to public schools, where the standard of education was good. Some of the families wriggled out of poverty when some of their children through hard work and dedication entered civil services or other jobs.

After two more decades (1987), the poor started to feel the heat of deprivation. Food was not as easily available because costs had risen beyond earnings. Stunting and malnutrition started rising. Still these two curses were the lowest in Pakistan in the entire region.

A decade later, the poor started facing all dimensions of poverty. They tasted hunger like never before. Shelter became a luxury for them. The rents went sharply up.

Corruption started rising with every passing day. The poor started living in fear.

Landholdings in rural areas diluted, also increasing rural poverty.

Overall, state services and infrastructure, including healthcare, education, and transport deteriorated excessively, making the situation worse for the working classes.

Stunting and malnutrition reached alarming levels – highest in the region compared with lowest three decades back. This also resulted in declined labour productivity.

The chances of the poor climbing up the social ladder almost vanished, as they could not

compete in knowledge and health with someone from the affluent class.

In following decades, there was an unbearable spike in food inflation. Industrial growth remained lopsided. In some years most industrial sectors operated at full capacities followed by a steep decline and huge unutilised capacities.

This effectively stopped new investments. The country on average added 2.5 million workers in the job market every year. There were fewer jobs than the addition in the workforce.

This further pushed the working classes below the poverty line.

The last three years have been a nightmare not only for the poor, but also for those, who are living just above the poverty line. The food prices have risen as never before. The increase is all across in the food chain.

Thus, stunting and malnutrition have reached new levels. As things stand now it seems certain that poverty is going to stay in Pakistan in the foreseeable future.

A modest economic recovery would have no positive impact on the poor, and their condition is likely to deteriorate further.