Pakistan at 50
Well, yes, Pakistan has completed fifty and not seventy-five years. The Pakistan of August 1947 was laid to rest as a failed state with the separation of East Pakistan as Bangladesh. I will not dwell on the causes of its demise. Nor will I comment on the current political and economic morass in which Pakistan is mired. But I will say this much: that the predicament is the outcome of decades of misrule or, in the jargon of experts, bad governance.
Pakistan has had a mixed bag of political regimes since 1972. There were two saviours in civilian dress. The first one, whose populist platform was “Islamic Socialism”, lasted for over five years (1972–1977). The armed forces removed him from power, tried him for murder, and hanged him. The second one, whose populist platform was the “Medina State”, lasted for over three years (2018–2022). He was catapulted into power by the army and removed by a parliamentary vote of no-confidence with the army’s consent. (He claims, without evidence, that his ouster was engineered by a US-led conspiracy.) There were two military usurpers. One ruled for over eleven years (1977–1988) and was killed in an air crash. The other stayed in power for eight years (1999–2007). The two dictators were involved with the United States, first in the war in Afghanistan against the former Soviet Union and then in the removal of the Taliban from power in that country. The seeds of “Talibanisation” of Pakistan were sown by the first dictator and its bitter fruit has been harvested since the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan — Taliban are back in the saddle there. In fact, the rise of radical Islam in Pakistan owes its beginning to the times of the first saviour; it was then nurtured by the first military dictator. Besides the two civilian saviours and two military dictators, two families have dominated Pakistan’s politics: Bhutto-Zardari (of the Pakistan Peoples Party) and Nawaz-Shehbaz Sharif (of the Pakistan Muslim League-N). A majority in the political class has its vote banks through property, land in particular, religion and opportunistic alliances.
Much has changed in Pakistan in the last fifty years. For one thing, the armed forces have become the kingmaker. Since national security — which usually means the fear of India — was the reason for the development of nuclear arms, I wonder why the country has not reduced the size of the armed forces and their financial burden on the economy. On the positive side, the average standard of living has risen; the extent and severity of poverty have gone down; and the quantity of physical and social infrastructure has increased several folds. More than one-half of the population now lives in urban areas. The rapid expansion of towns and cities has been fuelled by the natural growth of their population, migration from the rural to urban areas, development of physical infrastructure (roads and transport), and the growth of industry and services. The agrarian economy has transformed into a diversified and monetised economy where farming is no longer the most important source of household income or employment. The evidence of significant changes in the physical, economic, and social conditions is copious, quite widespread and in many places striking. Just look, for example, at the network of roads, in cities and towns, linking towns with each other and with villages; the diversity and density of the means of transport for people, animals and goods (cars, buses, wagons, trucks, and tractors with trolleys); and the extensive use of the media (radio, TV, computer) and the cell (mobile) phone; and the expanded access to electricity, potable water, educational institutions, and health care facilities (physicians, nurses, dispensaries, and hospitals).
However, all of this should be tempered with other pieces of evidence. Pakistan does not compare favourably with the average standard of living in low-income countries. Moreover, it has fallen behind both India and Bangladesh on most development indicators. The reasons are that Pakistan has had greater political instability, more dominant role of the army, lower human capital formation, and has followed flawed economic and social policies. Pakistan also presents a world of sharp contrasts based on income (rich versus poor), gender (male versus female), residence (urban versus rural), and region (within and between provinces). These disparities are interwoven with divisions in the society based on lineage and kinships, clan and tribe, caste, ethnicity or language, and religion or sect. These divisions play a significant role in determining people’s aspirations, chances, opportunities, achievements, status, and power. Some of the disparities are easier to illustrate because of the availability of data (numbers) than others; some are quite complex and not easily amenable to interpretations.
Broadly speaking, in the last 50 years, the differentiation of society by class has changed from two groups in the early years to three groups with the growth of a middle class — which is admittedly quite broad in range — particularly in towns and cities. This reflects the agrarian transition, and expansion of industries, education, and urban centres. In the villages too, with the expansion of the cash nexus and mobility of people and goods, the old economic and social relations have changed, but unevenly between regions. This is not to underestimate the role of caste, religion and ethnicity in the formation and growth of classes. Uneven development is reflected in all aspects of everyday life: abundance of private goods with public squalor; quantitative expansion of many services with deterioration in their quality, particularly in the public sector; and persistently high disparities in income and wealth. Social exclusion — an important dimension of poverty — is visibly high, particularly of women, low-income households, low-caste groups, and in the rural areas. The striking gender imbalance in rural areas reflects itself in several ways: in the sharing of work, participation in community life, making decisions in the household, and state of education and health. However, age, education and the economic condition make a substantial difference to perceptions on gender imbalance: the older, less educated (or uneducated) and poor men and women tend to accept it more than the younger, more educated, and not-so-poor men and women.
Younger men and women, however uneducated or poor, express quite unequivocally the need for children to go to school. They are equally certain that girls deserve as much, if not more, schooling as boys: they are willing to ‘put their money where their mouth is.’ That school enrolments are rising slowly, especially for girls, has to do with severity of poverty and the poor quality of schooling available to them. It is more a problem on the supply than demand side. The younger men, even those with little or no education and low income, would like to have far fewer children than their own parents: this clearly reflects a shift of preference from quantity to quality of children. Young women are even more receptive to this idea: the more educated the woman the more certain she is about her preference. What empowers her more than anything else is her educational achievement; her husband’s education is like icing on the cake. These are significant changes in attitudes.
Much as people want their children to go to school their major concern is about the return on schooling, given the low quality of education and uncertain prospects of entry into the job market. Indeed, there is widespread evidence of low quality of education, particularly for those children who must depend on government schools. The mushroom-like growth of private schools even in rural areas — many of them are of questionable quality and no more than profitable enterprises for their owners — are partly a response to the rising demand for quality education and partly a reflection of the sorry state of public sector schools. Children from most poor households are trapped in government schools. They tend to leave the rural environment — that is what education does to them — in search of jobs in towns and cities which they either do not get or are not there in the first place. While participation in education beyond high school is rising rapidly, it produces graduates who are ill equipped to offer the kinds of talents and skills that the market demands. Youth unemployment represents a serious failure of the education system and a betrayal of hopes and aspirations that the parents and their children seem to nurture.
While more people have access to infrastructure and services, their supply is neither secure nor certain. More importantly, they are of questionable quality. At the same time, the inter-regional and inter-household disparities have widened. The major factors underlying these inequalities are (i) unstable and biased economic growth, (ii) tax exemptions (on income and wealth) and tax evasion, and (iii) distorted subsidies and public expenditure. The interminable dependence on foreign loans and aid to stabilise the economy and sustain economic growth is because of flawed policies and mismanagement. These policies have promoted wasteful consumption and investment and encouraged rent-seeking behaviour. How can a country go on spending more than it earns? Just look at Pakistan’s record of deficit in the fiscal (budgetary) and current accounts and its debt load. Public investments and policies have not focused on increasing productivity, competition, and diversification, and attracting foreign capital. Political instability and a deep sense of insecurity act as major barriers to both domestic and foreign private investment. In fact, they also contribute to the flight of capital and emigration of people, especially the young and talented. Mercifully remittances from Pakistanis working abroad have become the lifeline for the country’s economy.
People’s trust in public institutions was never strong and seems to have gone down if the public opinion polls and social media are any guide. Their unsatisfactory performance has led to a generally held view that they are corrupt and inefficient. (To cite one example, the phenomenal growth of the private security services indicates lack of trust in the government’s law-enforcement agencies.) The rule of law has declined, and accountability has become a political tool. Periodic reforms have ben cosmetic and if real either thwarted or reversed. And some reforms have exacerbated the problems. The federal state is dominated by one province because of its share in the population and its disproportionate representation in the civil and military establishments. The country should have more provinces to accommodate ethnic diversity and promote regional development. Second, the provincial governments do not enjoy the autonomy they need to meet the aspirations and needs of their populations. (The simmering unrest in Balochistan is an example.) Third, time and again the elected governments at the provincial level have sabotaged the role of elected local councils both in urban and rural areas. The root cause of this is in the country’s Constitution: it does not specifically require each province to have elected local councils, define their share in the provincial resources, powers, and responsibilities. Local self-government is an essential part of a healthy democratic society.
The good thing is that the civil society institutions, like the mass media and Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs), have become quite active everywhere as promoters of rights and suppliers of services. However, the state functionaries see them as meddlers, even contenders, not to be trusted: they try to buy them or intimidate them if necessary. The civil society institutions, given their fragile roots in Pakistan, are quite vulnerable to threats and bribes but they do get attention of and support from the public since they can be effective. They empower ordinary people both in rural and urban areas. A genuine partnership of NGOs with the public-sector entities has had a significant impact on the quality of life of ordinary people all over Pakistan. (The rural support programmes are a good example of it.) Sadly, the political class and the mass media have subordinated themselves to the whims and designs of the armed forces and the radical religious groups. These two institutions have become untouchable dead-weights in the way of country’s progress.
But I must leave the reader on a happy note. Most Pakistanis are tolerant, forgiving, patient, resilient, and philanthropic. These are traits worth rejoicing at any time.