Despite healthy economic growth, two thirds of Pakistanis earn under $2 a day, 60 per cent of adults are illiterate, and the country is in the grip of a food and fuel crisis. No wonder the frivolity of Islamabad’s wedding season feels a little forced this year.
It’s wedding season, and all the salons are filled with brides in chiffon getting caked in make-up, trucks laden with dowry furniture ply the country roads, roadside flower stalls are hives of activity, and hotel ballrooms are booked solid for sparkling mendhi (henna) parties and walima receptions (banquets). But it’s written in wedding guests’ faces: the nuptial gaiety is taking a lot of effort this winter. Never in recent memory has there been such bitter discontent.
The world sees Pakistan’s political turbulence and militant violence on television weekly, but what is really hurting people’s everyday lives is something less headline-grabbing: chronic shortages of the basics. Flour, gas, power, water and security: getting hold of these essentials is now a struggle for ordinary people.
Economic growth was a robust 7 per cent last year. Yet many people cannot heat or light their homes because a 3,600-megawatt power deficit has forced lengthy power cuts, known as “loadshedding”, during this, Pakistan’s coldest winter in over 20 years. Blackouts last three to 14 hours a day, depending on where you live and how influential your neighbours are. Less well-off neighbourhoods are subject to such weak gas pressure that they cannot cook or ignite their heaters.
The chronic national water shortage has depleted hydro-electric dams and put pressure on domestic water supplies. Even on the fringes of the capital Islamabad, residents are regularly forced to buy extra water from tanker trucks so they can bathe. The bazaars seethe with bitterness at the failure of government to ensure provision of the basics.
The flour crisis is surreal. Though the government proclaimed a bumper wheat crop last year, for weeks the less well-off have elbowed each other in queues to get a ration of their diet staple. The country is importing wheat at twice the price it exported it to make up for the alleged shortages. The government blames hoarders and smugglers. Consumers suspect market manipulation by unscrupulous profiteers in high places. Troops surround flourmills and escort flour distribution trucks, ostensibly to prevent smuggling and hoarding. Riot police beat demonstrators protesting the wheat shortages.
In the preceding months the police were busy laying into black-suited lawyers protesting against General Musharraf’s muzzling of independent judges and arrests of the highest Bar Association office-holders. One can’t help wondering why the troops aren’t rounding up militants instead.
Considering that 65 per cent of Pakistan’s population live in rural areas, where “feudal” landowners still hold sway over the serfs that till their lands in subsistence agriculture, it’s not surprising that industry and manufacturing have not kept pace with India since the subcontinent split in 1947.
Back in 2001, before September 11, Pakistan’s economic indicators were far worse, but there were few beggars on the street compared to India’s madding crowds. It was said, then, that no matter how poor a family was, they could have nutritious food and shelter. That’s not the case now. The events of September 11 ended up giving Pakistan some good-looking indicators, but the lack of flour and power driving people to distraction these days is no reflection of sound economic management.
Pakistan had never had a suicide bomber before 9/11. In 2007 there were 60 suicide bomb attacks, killing 700. In a sign of the times, the Pakistan People’s Party of assassinated Benazir Bhutto revived its election campaign slogan from the 1970s: “Roti, Capri, Makan” (Food, Clothes, Shelter). Contrary to some hysterical outside claims, Pakistan is not about to descend into civil war, nor lose control of its nuclear weapons to an impossible takeover by religious fundamentalists.
But the hunger and cold of this discontented winter could propel Pakistan into a new crisis, in the shape of a popular anti-government uprising.