One step forward, three hundred yards back. Notice even in these desolate times, I have not lost my sense of proportion. For instance, I could have said one foot forward three lightyears back. But there is no frame of reference. At least three hundred yards as an expression is quantifiable by the human mind. And it does the job. Whenever you lift a foot, it invariably takes you on a journey in the backward direction. So what is the prudent course of action? Not trying to take a step forward? Stay stuck? Sums up the seventy-five years long history of our society’s collective wisdom nicely.
The last time when a substantial part of the country went under water, in 2010, I asked a western friend working for an international NGO busy in relief work for her candid thoughts. She made an excellent point. In Pakistan, she said, where even the best philanthropists seldom leave the major communication arteries, the scale of urban poverty was well documented. However, the flood had brought the extent of rural poverty into sharp focus, and it was breathtaking. In my view, these pockets of poverty prove ideal recruiting grounds and killing fields for the religious radicals. Ergo our never-ending radicalism problem. But more of that later. To comprehend the extent of poverty, you will need a few mental images.
In the hot and humid climate of the country, where power outages in cities force you to break down and complain, it might not be easy to visualise a village in the middle of nowhere, with no access to a metalled road, electricity, sewerage system, or water supply. But still, there are plenty of them. In such villages, people still make small mud cottages without proper ventilation where they sleep on the ground. Where toileting and bathing all take place outdoors and where they are constantly exposed to the elements, pests, and wild animals. Because the locally produced food is totally dependent on the weather, when drought strikes, you are reminded of sub-Saharan Africa. When floods come, your life and livelihood are sunk. Where if you fall seriously ill, you die or are reduced to an immobilised mound of decaying flesh, a sight that seldom evokes pity but only disgust at your unwelcome survival.
I vividly remember a visit to my village some two decades ago. Again in the middle of nowhere, then without a metalled road or electricity. When I disembarked, I noticed a small formation of kids had gathered there. I dug deep into my pocket, got all bills of smaller denominations out, and distributed them among them. Now, if my own childhood memories were to be relied upon, whenever I got ahold of some unexpected cash, I would go to the local shop and get some candy. That was precisely what I expected of them, for there was a shop only a stone’s throw away. But they did not. They went to the garden right next to us and bought a mango apiece from the gardener.
I had thought that given they lived so close to nature, these fruits would be readily available to them, even if by way of innocent childhood scrumping. But not to this lot. In a country where the rich happily give free stuff to other rich folks, theft, no matter how small, innocent or innocuous, means only bodily harm to the kids of the poor. That’s why the children of the affluent class are often taught to hate the poor viscerally. And sadly, this classist prejudice and the rich-poor discrepancy is a hallmark of entire South Asia. These parts are all still broken. Only you don’t have the habit of traveling off the beaten path.
If you have known my work over decades, you will remember that I have always welcomed basic subsistence support and poverty alleviation programmes like the BISP, the Ehsaas programme, langars, and health cards. Former premier Khan’s rule is significant, especially in this regard, because the data gathered and organised through these programmes alone has offered the state a roadmap and a vehicle to help the most vulnerable in their hour of need through cash transfers. These programmes can, of course, expand the scope of this data by linking their accounts to a locatable personal sim or mobile phone and health data. In the end, efficient software and automation will illuminate the perfect path for the state to ameliorate the lot of its poorest. Now imagine if, instead of acting clueless, the state could send rations, medicines, and rescue equipment to the stranded victims through civilian drones. How easy it would have become to weather these shocks to the system.
Another distinction with very little difference that undermines the cause of poverty alleviation is called the lower middle class. To underplay the incident of poverty and to shore up middle-class numbers, governments in the developing world revise the definition and criteria of poverty and include a significant chunk of the poor into this category. Doesn’t mean this subclass is any less vulnerable. In fact, given the recent price shocks, this group has been ruined because there is little or no safety net. Parents who could afford to feed each child one egg per day cannot afford to do so. It is becoming a choice between nutrition, rents/bills/fees and transport costs. The country needs to rethink the poverty numbers, the criteria and ways to help the most vulnerable. Remember, what remained of the actual middle class is all but gone due to the impossible living conditions.
When for seventy-five years, society has been trying to stand still, obviously, the relationship between the predator and the prey has not changed. Predators hunt, and their game try to hide in plain sight. But this circle of abuse encourages the predators more. Their numbers have been multiplying as a consequence. So in the coming days, you will see two trends. An increase in radicalism because while you and I may take a break, the activists of the radical religious outfits seldom do. Two, the emergence of bewildering sights and sounds of extreme poverty that may be enough to drive you crazy for a lifetime. While this continues, my media obsesses about Imran Khan’s court peshis, violence in cricket stadiums abroad, and other wasteful pursuits. But those sights and sounds will not stop. They will reach you through social media if not on the streets. When you don’t want to bring down the circle of abuse, you will inevitably become its part and probably a victim.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 10th, 2022.