Poverty numbers off govt’s radar screen
KHALEEQ Nawaz, 24, sitting uncomfortably on the edge of a platform looked tired. He was chatting with a security guard in front of a grand house in an elite locality of Karachi on a sizzling summer afternoon. His pushcart laden with piles of old newspapers and discarded household items was parked on the side.
When approached for a brief interview, he told Dawn his tale of economic struggle and frustration. “We cannot afford three meals a day and have to make do with two, like many other poor families in the Neelum Colony.” Neelum Colony is a low-income locality adjacent to the elite Defence and Clifton in Karachi.
Khaleeq’s family moved in 2003 to Karachi from Melsi, a village near Bhawalpur, after being evicted by their landlord, in the hope of employment and better life. In Karachi four of his seven-member family work but the collective earning barely supports their survival.
He bought the cart on loan, and started the petty business of buying and selling junk. It pays him better than his earlier job at a barber shop but not quite enough.
Kaleeq’s father works as a guard for a security company, his mother as a housemaid and younger brother as a helper at a tea kiosk. Only the youngest of five siblings, a sister, is studying in school, other two sisters manage home. The total family income averages at Rs17,000 ($180)a month. They pay Rs5,000($50)in rent that includes utility charges and the rest is used to cover kitchen expenses and other incidentals.
“I think nothing is ever going to change. I am too drained to even dream now,” he said before walking back to his cart.
A few metres from the Neelum Colony there are eateries filled to capacity in afternoon. Here food bill at each table of seven people exceeds what a working class family earns in a month.
It is not hard to conclude that poverty and income disparity are on the rise in the country. There are indications that the percentage of population referred to as ultra poor might have decreased but the concentration of people living on one dollar a day poverty line has increased.
The urban property is projected to have increased over the past four years because of escalating cost of living and shrinking employment opportunities. The general economic slowdown has squeezed margins for petty businesses. On the other hand, the visible spending patterns at high end shopping outlets in cities point to increasing income disparities.
Some analysts citing the net capital transfer from urban to rural areas under the PPP-led coalition government suggest that the rate of increase in poverty has fallen in the countryside.
However, in absence of verifiable data it is hard to substantiate these observations.
The policy of targeted financial support for ultra poor under Pakistan People’s Party flagship programme named after the martyred leader Benazir Bhutto has helped destitute families with Rs1000($12) monthly grant.
According to the current ‘Pakistan Economic Survey’, “…the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) provided relief to over four million recipients, including internally displaced persons and flood victims. Almost Rs122 billion was disbursed to BISP beneficiaries up to March, 2012 since the launch of the scheme. Allocation for 2011-12 was Rs50 billion. The number of BISP recipients could rise to seven million once the on-going nationwide poverty scorecard survey is completed.”
In the current budget Dr Hafeez Shaikh has proposed to increase the BISP allocation to Rs70 billion.
“It is the duty of a government to provide social security net to most vulnerable segments. This could, however, not absolve it of its responsibility to create an economic environment where public and private enterprises grow to generate employment opportunities to absorb human assets gainfully,” an economist made a point.
During its term of office so far, the elected government has failed miserably on this count. Adjusting job aspirants in bleeding dysfunctional public enterprises might have generated some political capital but it proved to be counter productive in the
“No country can support all its underprivileged on dole outs. It has to create opportunities to gainfully employ maximum number of people in working age group through economic expansion. Value addition is absolutely necessary to sustain a growing population. The lack of focus of PPP government on investment is the real culprit,” she added.
It is not surprising, therefore, that despite fairly successful programme of thinly spread social security net, Pakistan has slipped four places from its earlier low ranking on the global Human Development Index. It was ranked 145 out of 187 countries in the last HDI report. The HDI provides a composite measure of three dimensions of human development: living a long and healthy life (measured by life expectancy), being educated (measured by adult literacy and gross enrolment in education) and having a decent standard of living (measured by income and purchasing power parity).
“The government deliberately pushed back independent poverty assessment surveys to avoid embarrassment,” a well informed source in Islamabad told Dawn.
It explains the dropping of a chapter on poverty from Pakistan Economic Survey 2011-12 released a day before the presentation of the budget and replacing it with a chapter named ‘Social security net’.
There is no mention of the comparable data on poverty estimation.
Some reports suggest that a half-baked exercise was carried out in the Planning Commission but the creative accounting threw up unbelievably low poverty numbers. The outcome that suggested 12 per cent poverty prevalence was found so absurd that Finance Minister Dr Hafeez Shaikh refused to own it.
The chapter on social security nets in the survey counted all pro poor policies, public spending and initiatives. It mentions the Millennium Development Goals in the text but does not comment on the progress in Pakistan against each goal.
The survey did mention the constitution of a committee of poverty experts in the planning and development division to estimate poverty headcounts as well as poverty correlates, but reported nothing so far about the outcome.