Wednesday March 22, 2023

Life in the lower depths

July 03, 2022

With another increase in the prices of all petroleum products on the first of July, the general sense of gloom over the rising cost of living is sure to deepen. It is becoming harder for the ordinary citizen to bear with the hard decisions that this government is compelled to take in trying to set its economic house in order.

As Finance Minister Miftah Ismail has explained, the petroleum levy has been imposed to revive the IMF programme that was suspended four months ago. Minister of State for Petroleum Musadik Malik has reassured that the new government had stopped the downfall of the country’s fiscal position that was leading it towards default a few weeks ago.

At the same time, of course, the top officials have conceded that with this new price hike, the difficulties of the poor and the middle class would also increase. They have repeatedly acknowledged that tough times are ahead and this period of difficulties may last for three or four months.

But this promise of relief in the near future will be lost on those who are already struggling for survival. In fact, these additional burdens have only added to their almost immortal longings for a life of some ease and dignity. And though the poor may have been accustomed to their misery, there is no way of knowing how this fresh onslaught of monetary distress would affect their lives and social behaviour – in a personal or collective sense.

Last week, I had underlined the role that the rich must play to carry out their obligations towards society as such, particularly in honestly paying the higher taxes being imposed on them (‘A portrait of the rich’, June 26, 2022). I had attempted to enlarge this subject to suggest the launching of a proper study of how the elites had earned their wealth and what they were doing with it, in terms of their lifestyles and social commitments.

This week, let me venture to shift the lens in the opposite direction to grasp an entire vista of abject deprivation in more than a material sense. Again, I must confess that being only a poor scribe, I have no expertise to proficiently investigate the lives of the vast majority of this country that constitutes the poor and the lower middle class.

I am also not sure how this classification is to be defined. Do I, personally, belong to the middle class, just being able to make do and finding it more and more difficult to pay the bills? It is presumed that the middle class is the backbone of the system and plays a key role in advancing social and economic growth. It should also include what we may call the intelligentsia – the educated professionals who lend creativity and purpose to all national endeavours.

Incidentally, we may have some assumptions about how the rich live when we go past their high-walled mansions or have an opportunity to get a glimpse of their gated communities. We see them being driven in their shiny SUVs, at times being followed by armed guards. The lifestyles of the rich and famous may largely remain out of sight but they have a way of showing themselves off.

On the other hand, the natural habitats, so to say, of the poor remain mostly out of sight. A guided tour of the low income neighbourhoods and slums of Karachi would be a revelation for those who live air-conditioned lives. Yet, they are there and in innumerable numbers. Being in their midst would also certify the abominable fact that Pakistan is now not sixth but the fifth most populous country in the world. This is relevant for our economic challenges, though I am not concerned here with the statistical or conceptual intricacies of the economy.

Frankly, the thoughts I am sharing here were prompted by a few human encounters and stories some friends related about the privations of those who came to them for help. The stories are invariably heartrending. And there is not much that one can do to lessen the pain of some deeply wounded lives. The prices of essential items have risen so sharply that most households in the middle and lower class are not fully able to balance their budgets.

There is little evidence of any seminal discussion on this impoverishment of Pakistani society. It is possible for the rich to become richer in these circumstances, further enhancing the menace of disparity. Consider the example of fuel consumption in the country jumping 20 per cent during the past two months, when the prices were rising precipitously.

What can be the social and political consequences of the current surge in inflation? Does this portend any significant social unrest? Will the kind of disorder that we saw in Karachi, when residents of a locality came out to protest for water shortage and power breakdowns and blocked a main road, increase? Will street crime spread more widely? Will family ties become more brittle, sparking violence and antagonistic discord?

This list of questions can expand. But at one level, it is the mental health situation that is alarming. When people are not able to deal with the realities of their lives, there is likely to be a surge in the number of psychoses, including depression and anxiety disorders. Already, there is a lot of suppressed violence in society.

I will not elaborate but I saw these two headlines in an English daily on Tuesday, both datelined Karachi. One, on the front page: “Mobs lynch two ‘robbers’ to death, critically injure a third”. The other, on the city page: “Robbers kill youth over resistance”. Not very unusual. Yet there are clear signs of more deviant behaviour across the spectrum.

We do not know if the present structure of governance has any scope or capacity for social research to help develop viable strategies for maintaining peace, order and harmony in society. And are the rich, in their own vested interest, cognizant of the gathering storm?

The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached at: ghazi_salahuddin@