Although income-based poverty in Pakistan has declined from 57.9 per cent in 1989 to 29.5 per cent in 2013-14, the country experiences substantial level of multifaceted inequalities. Urban-rural, men-women, inter-provincial and intra-provincial and rich-poor divides are of appalling proportions that keep fuelling social disharmony and political instability in the country.
According to a report of the World Bank, the per capita income of the top 10 per cent population is $2,100, which is twice higher than the national average. Some 42 per cent of the national income is captured by top 20 per cent of the population. The super-rich 18,000 people possess $72,700 per capita income.
Such a skewed distribution of wealth breeds grim ramifications of all kinds.
However, income poverty does not adequately explain the complex web of poverty. A more comprehensive measure of deprivation is multidimensional poverty, which transcends income poverty.
The UNDP’s recently released data on multi-dimensional poverty in Pakistan shows 54.6 per cent poverty in rural areas compared to 9.3 per cent in urban areas. Multidimensional poverty in Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi and Rawalpindi was 10 per cent whereas it exceeded 90 per cent in Killa Abdullah, Harnai, Barkhan, Sherani and Kohistan.
Inequalities of such proportion are precarious for the country. Intra-provincial imbalances have political repercussions. They often ignite polarisation which is inimical for a federation.
The gender divide is often glossed over. It is not just an issue of human rights, it also fetters the growth of any society. No country can attain its development goals with fifty per cent population deprived of political and economic participation. Women own only three per cent of agriculture land in Pakistan. Their participation in the labour force is just 25 per cent compared to 83 per cent of men, which renders them economically disempowered. Their valuable contribution in domestic service and their role in the informal economy is not even accounted for.
Pakistan is the only country in South Asia, which never had a woman judge in its Supreme Court. According to a report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, only 5.8 per cent of high court judges in the country are women, and to date, no woman had been appointed as chief justice of any of the high courts. Among a total of 130 judges of the Supreme Court and all high courts, only 7 are women.
Health and education indicators also depict an ignominious gender inequality in Pakistan. Although placing Pakistan on the second last number on the global gender index may be untenable and can be questioned for many reasons, the gender inequality is too conspicuous in Pakistan.
Land ownership is a key determinant of social, economic and political empowerment in Pakistan. According to the official data, 80 per cent poor farmers (possessing less than 7.5 acres) own only 29 per cent of the total privately owned land. Paradoxically 1.44 per cent big landlords and farmers (possessing more than 50 acres) also own 29 per cent of the total land. This highly skewed land ownership denotes a social cleavage between the rich and poor.
Land ownership is not just a source of economic supremacy for a small segment of population, it is also a major cause behind political disenfranchisement of the poor. How ruling aristocracy has clenched sources of productivity is evident from the fact that forty per cent of households in Pakistan consume less than 2,100 calories per day against a national average of 2,400 calories.
According to a research conducted by a renowned aid agency Oxfam, the richest 20 per cent population consumes five times more than the poorest 20 per cent. Consumption share of top 10 per cent was 31.3 per cent while the share of bottom 40 per cent was only 20 per cent.
Poverty and inequality are no more considered an outcome of economic deprivation only. Political infrastructure, access to power, resource distribution and governance are some of the critical factors shaping socio-economic landscape of society. These factors explain why Sindh is the most food-deprived province of the country where 72 per cent households are marked food insecure including 9.8 per cent suffering from severe hunger. According to the aforementioned research of Oxfam, Sindh is the most unequal province in the country where Gini coefficient has risen from 31.85 in 1990-91 to 34.0 in 2011-12.
In a dysfunctional public sector system, a voracious private market proliferates. One can argue in favour of open market for its competitiveness, efficiency and innovation, yet its primary driver is profit that restricts affordability and access for low income groups. As profit-propelled market forces sprawl, the gap between the haves and have-nots widens.
Market is an undeniable reality. If the state has the mettle to regulate the market, genuine interests of citizens can be safeguarded. However, when a state is in disarray, market will determine the course. Pakistan is a textbook example of a weak government where rules are easily evaded and laws conveniently defied by market forces. One such example is agriculture sector. Almost every year government announces bumper crops, yet the citizens are deprived of its harvest. Pakistan’s annual produce of wheat is approximately 26 million tones. This translates into 0.35 kg per capita per day for an estimated population of 200 million. A cursory arithmetic calculation shows that Pakistan produces surplus wheat than its domestic need. Still, more than half of the population is food insecure in the country.
Ironically, grain producing peasants go hungry at the expense of millers, traders, transporters and cronies of the ruling elite. In spite of rich harvests of wheat, rice and sugarcane, farmers keep clamouring for cost of their inputs. An unholy nexus of millers, middlemen, exporters and government functionaries deprive the farmers of judicious returns.
It is hard to comprehend that while most of the countries in the region have reduced the number of stunted children, why has it increased in Pakistan from 43 per cent in 1992 to 45 per cent in 2012. Stark inequality is evident from the very fact that the stunting rate is two and a half times higher among children from the bottom 20 per cent of the population than the top 20 per cent.
It is fundamentally the responsibility of the state to strike a balance among citizens with different income levels. An effective and transparent taxation system is the key to bridge the gap between higher and lower income groups. Unfortunately Pakistan’s regressive taxation system has an adverse impact which facilitates the rich to dodge tax net and traps middle and lower income groups in its cobweb. Approximately 60 per cent of the tax revenue is generated through indirect taxes.
Unjust, unfair and unequal treatment of a larger segment of society will eventually culminate in anarchy.