An anti-social contract

Understanding the relationship between the state and its citizens in Pakistan

The relationship between the state and the citizens has been a topic of discussion for ages, taken up by philosophers, thinkers, political scientists and others. This bond exists under a social contract that is meant to give legitimacy to the state which enjoys certain powers and acts as custodian of the rights of the citizens. An ideal state is the one where the citizens are law abiding and those in power ensure that their rights are not usurped and they get a fair chance to excel and prosper.

A debate about the state’s legitimacy in terms of ensuring the citizens’ rights is currently going on in Pakistan. A rewriting of the social contract has been mooted. So, what are the rights and basic needs that the citizens may expect from the state and how the state has fared?

For the sake of this write-up, let us focus on social development, livelihood sustenance and economic prosperity. These responsibilities are in addition to guarantees of fundamental rights such as security of person, freedom of movement, freedom of association, prohibition of slavery and forced labour etc.

Section 38 of the Constitution of Pakistan 1973 clearly provides under the head of Promotion of Social and Economic Well-being of the People:

The State shall:

(a) secure the well-being of the people, irrespective of sex, caste, creed or race, by raising their standard of living, by preventing the concentration of wealth and means of production and distribution in the hands of a few to the detriment of general interest and by ensuring equitable adjustment of rights between employers and employees, and landlords and tenants;

(b) provide for all citizens, within the available resources of the country, facilities for work and adequate livelihood with reasonable rest and leisure;

(c) provide for all persons employed in the service of Pakistan or otherwise, social security by compulsory social insurance or other means;

(d) provide basic necessities of life, such as food, clothing. housing, education and medical relief, for all such citizens, irrespective of sex, caste, creed or race, as are permanently or temporarily unable to earn their livelihood on account of infirmity, sickness or unemployment.

No doubt the list is quite overwhelming and the track record of the Pakistani state not very impressive when it comes to realisation of these objectives. Budgetary limitations have been frequently cited as a reason for this but is that a valid excuse?

Farooq Tariq, the Pakistan Kissan Rabta Committee secretary general, says that governments cannot serve their peoples without first adopting pro-people approaches and priorities. He points out that most of the budgeted resources are allocated for debt-servicing and defence and very little is left for social sector spending. “The funds need to be diverted in the right direction.” To make his point he quotes Hafeez Sheikh, the advisor to prime minister on finance and revenue, as saying the government could have done a lot for the common man had they not retired the large amount of debt they did last year.

Tariq says he agrees that the challenges in the education and health sectors are huge but apart from allocation of funds the regulation part is also weak. That is how, he says, the private sector gets to fleece the people and remains unaccountable. Article 25-A of the Constitution of Pakistan says that the state shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years in such a manner as may be determined by law. Unfortunately, there are 22.8 million out-of-school children in the country. The figure has been mentioned in a report released recently with the support of Malala Fund.

Why can the government not convince parents to bring these children to schools, he asks? The health sector, he says, is getting less funds than before so that many services that used to be free at public hospitals henceforth carry price tags. The government is withdrawing subsidies under agreements with international donors and health sector has taken a major hit.

A look at the public expenditure on education and health in Pakistan appears to support Tariq’s assertions. According to the latest Economic Survey of Pakistan, the allocation for education is around 2.3 per cent of the GDP, the lowest in the region. The allocation for health is around 1.1 per cent of the GDP although the World Health Organization (WHO’s) has been recommending 6 percent.

Universal social protection is another dream that has remained elusive. Most of the working class is not even entitled to it under law. Bushra Khaliq, the Women in Struggle for Empowerment (WISE) executive director, says the ever-increasing informality of the workforce has deprived millions of workers of benefits like social security, health cover, marriage grants and old-age pension. She tells TNS that the lack of documentation of the informal workforce has made it extremely difficult for the state to identify and reach them in times of Covid and provide them with sustenance. A large segment of the informal workforce is employed in home-based work, domestic help and agriculture where their rights as labourers are compromised, she adds.

Khaliq says the informal sector is expanding because many employers do not want to pay even the minimum wage to their workers or contribute towards other benefits for them. The payments they make, she says, are mostly calculated on the basis of the volume of work. There are no fixed salaries. “It’s time for the government to intervene, make the employers get their employees registered and enforces labour laws.”

While we are still stuck with the debate about ensuring minimum wages, rest of the world is talking about decent work and wages, says Ume Laila Azhar, the HomeNet Pakistan executive director. She says the workers must get decent wages, be secure and safe at workplace, enjoy job security, get social protection benefits and be able to learn new skills and grow professionally. This, she says, is not difficult and can be achieved mostly through a strong enforcement of labour laws and by convincing the employers to invest in human resource.

She says extending social protection to informal sector workforce is not too ambitious a goal. In some countries, she says, indirect taxes have been used for this purpose.

The author is a staff reporter and can be reached at

An anti-social contract: Understanding relationship between state and its citizens in Pakistan