Riding different trains

May 23, 2021

An exploration of two vastly different economies that exist side by side

The book is about two Pakistans (dou = two) of haves and have-nots. While most places would be divided this way to some extent, what is alarming is that the have-nots here outnumber haves four to one. Even worse is the fact that their next generations will likely stay in the same group. There are vast differences in rewards and living standards for very similar work in the two Pakistans that exist side by side in the same country.

This concept is beautifully explained with a tangible analogy of the two economies that existed side by side in Mughal era — one inside the fortified city around the Royal Palace for the ruling elite, and the other outside the walled city where the bulk of the populace lived and worked. The revenue was collected from outside the fortified city and shared with the residents inside.

ShahJahanabad, as it was called when the Mughal Emperor laid the foundations of what is now part of Old Delhi, had about 400,000 residents by 1650 AD. The nobles had built beautiful havelis along the banks of River Yamuna each costing up to two million rupees then. They had all the tradesmen and support staff at their disposal and the city had a vibrant economy of its own. People born outside the walled city had limited chances to get inside. In 1650 AD, the top 445 officers of the Mughal Empire had a 61 percent share of the payroll — even amongst them, 4 princes and 59 nobles got a whopping 38 percent. “The walls denoted an economic frontier” excluding 95 percent of the population. This is how the Mughal economy worked. Sadly, this is also how the national economy works now. In 2019, the top quintile of Pakistani households spent Rs 45,000 rupees or more. In other words, 80 percent of households were spending less than Rs 45,000 a month. For many in the cities who believe that their domestic staff is amongst the poor, it may be a surprise that the majority in the country fall below that threshold.

The exclusion in income leads to marginalisation in health and education and these are chronicled with rich data. For example, Pakistan’s per capita health expenditure at $40 (2016) was even less than the average for underdeveloped countries ($44). India spends 50 percent more per capita. Without adequate expenditure on public health, you can never have a healthy and competitive workforce.

The differences are stark and there are no indications in the system that the gap will diminish automatically. It will require active intervention and there is no shortage of ideas in the book with well researched benchmarks. The author argues that the exit from the poverty trap is only possible through more focused education and better productivity with an internationally competitive and documented economy.

The good thing about data is that it debunks some popular myths. One such myth is cultural reluctance to female education. The single most frequent deterrent to female education is not such a reluctance but the distance of school from home.

The author has repeatedly used analogies to explain segregation and compartmentalisation in daily life. This makes it easy to understand. I particularly liked the analogy of riding different trains by different classes when it comes to education. Those who can afford the top tier of private education, enable their children to compete anywhere in the world. They can read and write in an international language, have critical thinking skills and are trained for leadership positions. They are riding an express train that reaches all important destinations first. The ones in government schools ride the passenger train and they are not always sure if they would even complete the journey. The quality of education is poor, and a large number drops out before reaching any destination. What is worse is that their children will most likely take the same passenger train. Going at this rate, the book tells us that Punjab may be the first province to fulfill the constitutional promise of universal schooling by 2041 and Baluchistan may do so at the dawn of the 22nd Century.

Education is one tool that can help people cross over to the prosperity zone. The book recommends more relevant and technical education in general, better training for teachers with a focus on primary education along the lines of what South Korea did and treating higher education as a private good and making the students pay the full cost. There is plenty of enthusiasm. The book is replete with examples of how other countries overcame challenges with an optimistic belief that the state can be successfully redeployed in Pakistan.

Talking of the economy, there are examples of how Pakistan’s economy is stuck at the lower rung of value addition with very low productivity. How, for example, America produces twice as much cotton as Pakistan with 1/50th the workforce or how Pakistani products do not exist in the most traded sectors in the world such as electronics and automobiles.

The book has been written with a mission to bring prosperity to all Pakistani households by 2047. It is rather voluminous — 600+ pages of data, analysis and more data. The good thing about data is that it debunks some popular myths. One such myth is cultural reluctance to female education. The single most frequent deterrent to female education is not the reluctance but the distance of school from home. Secured commute is the real constraint. Parents are not comfortable sending their daughters to school if it is more than half a kilometer away and where this concern is addressed, we see an increase in school enrolment. There are many such discussions and summarizing ideas may not do justice to the detail presented in the book.

The book is divided in three sections: poverty alleviation, economic progress and achieving targets, though, as a reader, one feels that the sections overlap. The sections are neatly divided into chapters and it is rather easy to look for specific information or analysis which would come in handy when readers debate their own solutions to the problems.

The author is an Ivy League-educated World Bank professional and has backed his argument with data with relevant references. It is encouraging to see that he has endeavoured to write in Urdu making a real attempt to communicate to a wider audience. What is missing, and perhaps can be added in the second edition, are tables and graphs, which make for quick and easy understanding.

Dou Pakistan

Author: Kazim Saeed

Publisher: Maktaba-i-Daniyal

Pages: 620

Price: Rs 895

The writer, currently on leave, is director of the Management Studies Department at the Government College University, Lahore

Riding different trains