Wednesday February 21, 2024

Informal, irregular and irrational

In Pakistan, we have a penchant for being informal, irregular and irrational. From in

June 11, 2014
In Pakistan, we have a penchant for being informal, irregular and irrational. From individual behaviour to social order, from institutional functions of the government to strategic choices made by the military, from a basic financial transaction to the highest level of statecraft, whenever we find ourselves in a difficult situation, our immediate response to resolve the situation is informal and irregular.
The analysis we do of the world around us, and the factors that land us into trouble from time to time, is mostly irrational.
In his recent budget speech, our finance minister makes no qualms about declaring that half of the population in our country lives below the poverty line. Even those who fluctuate above and below the poverty line and those who are parked just above it for generations survive through an informal economy. And the rich become richer by diverting their investments to the underground economy.
The informal and largely undocumented economy is the same size, if not bigger, as the formal economy. It is the backbone of Pakistan, be it in manufacturing, agriculture, packaging, transport or construction industries. But it is not just the means of living that remain informal, without any safeguards for the working classes and paying no taxes to the national exchequer. It is also housing, sanitation, education and medical services dispensed through quacks and spiritual healers that remain informal.
Karachi, where every tenth Pakistani lives, is inhabited by no less than 18 million people and continues to grow at five percent per annum. A city the size of Islamabad’s night population is added to Karachi every single year. In its estimated 4,700 shanty towns – katchi abadis – ten million people live in subhuman conditions. It is all informal, unregulated and substandard housing developed by land mafias.
It is similar, with varying degrees, in all urban centres of Pakistan. People with limited means in these cities have no other choice but to live in informal housing without clean drinking water and proper sanitation due to the absence of state-provided fundamental housing or municipal services. Likewise, low-quality private schooling is offered to the children of these residents. Else, they send their children to religious madressahs run by local clerics that are mushrooming in such localities. The state of Pakistan decidedly does not side with its poor and dispossessed citizens.
Health is worse than education. A third of the income of our poor is spent on caring for the sick in their households. The whole world is scared of us spreading polio when a quarter of a million children die every year due to easily avoidable and treatable diseases like diarrhoea, respiratory infections, jaundice and, above all, malnutrition.
Our maternal mortality ratio is among the highest in the world – 75 young Pakistani women die every day in ante- or post-natal complications or inability to access medical help. The majority of our women and children who survive are helped by quacks, paramedics pretending to be doctors or fake spiritual healers. All informal – and no real healthcare provided. Those who survive such conditions, survive on their natural resilience.
Then we find the postmodernist take on informal economy, housing, sanitation, transport, etc. Some friends celebrate the informal and underground economy. Maybe they are right to the extent that the poor are at least able to survive as formal institutional arrangements of our national economy are not only limited, they are also exclusionary and pro-rich. But who is actually making the real buck from the informal economy? The same idle rich class, isn’t it? This class absolves itself of any duty of care for its workers when economic activity takes place in the informal sector.
By the way, ‘informal’ finance ministers or even prime ministers, fixers like Moeen Qureshi and Shaukat Aziz for instance, can still be imported to get the macro-economic indicators look right in order to create a make-believe economic monster. But that monster will not only continue to have clay feet, it will also have a body of mud. It will fall and turn into dust the moment the fixer leaves, debt from IFIs is not rescheduled further and the budget subsidy through bilateral or multilateral aid is cut down.
If we think that a country where the urban poor solely, and the rural poor largely, survive on informal means of production and monetary transactions and lives in subhuman conditions can actually grow into an economic tiger, we are living in a fool’s paradise.
Now look at our internal security policy and strategic defence and offence. It is all about employing irregular ways and irregulars as our first line of defence. When we have a standing army of half a million, trained paramilitary forces and a cover provided by a competent air force and naval fleet, why do we invest in irregulars? It began with irregulars being sent to Kashmir in 1947. We had a claim on the State of Jammu and Kashmir. War is never the best option but even if circumstances were such, what was the point in mobilising irregular tribal warriors?
Then, in East Pakistan, we had irregulars in the form of Al-Badr and Al-Shams. What dividend did they bring? Investing in non-state militias and forces mobilised on the basis of orthodox religious ideologies has not paid us back the way we thought it will in Afghanistan during the Zia regime or elsewhere over the years. Some have turned their guns on us. The rest cannot be trusted either in my humble view unless the powers that be have become too complacent and still think they can control and regulate these outfits which are far more ideologically and commercially motivated than ever before, grossly intolerant of others in nature and increasingly nurturing international linkages.
Agencies from across the borders and across the seas have their fingers in every pie that we baked in our ovens over the past three decades. Raising more irregulars in the form of lashkars to fight those against us may well be expedient in the short run but will not resolve the issue for us in the long run.
Look at whatever successes we have had in containing, if not curbing, violence, extremism, sectarianism and ethnic strife across the length and breadth of Pakistan. It was all through regular forces, their resolve, their strength, their action and their sacrifice. The recent attack on the Karachi airport was thwarted by the regulars of the Airport Security Force, police, Rangers and the army.
As far as being irrational is concerned, there is no way we can survive – leave alone prosper – in the 21st century if we do not come out of our insistent intellectual backwardness. If we cannot rationally determine the causes of what we are going through and ascertain accurately the effects on our state and society, we will never be able to come out of this quagmire. We have to accept what is our own doing in order to correct course. Only then will we be able to clearly see where extraneous forces are acting against us – and how.
The emotional, irrational and reactive Pakistani elite and affluent middle class has to indulge in some introspection now. We have to come out of the paranoia of the world coming together to eliminate us. It is of our own making. We have achieved little in the fields of arts, sciences, technology, industry, economic prowess or strategic superiority.
Who do we really challenge in this world? What is there in our armoury that will make other nations fear us? That we have 100 million living below poverty line, 2.5 million children dying before they reach the age of five, 75 mothers dying in child birth every day or us exporting polio virus? We have to come out of our hypocrisy and inefficiency as a people. It is now or never. We are left with no choice but to radically change our ways. History waits for no one.
The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad.