Poverty is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan as every third Pakistani is caught in the ‘poor’ bracket, i.e. some 58.7 million out of a total population of 180 million subsist below the poverty line. This includes more than half the population in the forever remote Balochistan, 33 percent in Sindh, 32 percent in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and 19 percent in Punjab. These are daunting figures for every Pakistani. According to the report Pakistan Living Standards Measurement (PLSM), survey data have registered a decline in the poverty headcount from 34.5 percent to 12.4 percent in 10 years. Though this indicates a lot of progress towards poverty alleviation, the realities on the ground do not match the conclusions. That is the reason why a technical group has been set up by the Ministry of Planning, Development and Reforms to review the official methodology for poverty estimation and validation of poverty numbers. According to a World Bank report, World Development Indicators 2013, 60 percent of Pakistan's population lives below the poverty line. The international poverty line is two dollars a day or an income of Rs 200 per day. The report showed that 21 percent of Pakistan's population lives below $ 1.25 per day, and a larger number lives under two dollars a day. A comparison of regional countries showed that the poverty rate in Sri Lanka and Nepal was significantly less than Pakistan with 23.9 percent and 57.35 percent, respectively.
An analysis of the data revealed that 30.9 percent of children under the age of five are suffering from malnutrition and are underweight. The youth literacy rate was recorded at 71 percent for the 15-24 age group. The vulnerable employment, the proportion of unpaid family workers and own account workers in total employment was 63 percent. In recent years, to help the poor, schemes like the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund, Tameer-e-Watan Programme, Benazir Income Support Programme, Pakistan Bait-ul-Maal, subsidies on food, Employees Old Age Benefit Scheme and Workers Welfare Fund have been launched. But, according to independent observers, these initiatives have benefited a small percentage of the country's population. It is pertinent to note here that fighting poverty is at the core of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Although the government has adopted a number of measures to achieve the MDG benchmarks by 2015, it is lagging behind in achieving most targets in various sectors. Regarding the goal on education, there has actually been a regression. The Net Enrolment Ratio (NER) improved from 42 percent in 2001-02 to 57 percent in 2011-12 but it is still far short of the target, while the Completion Rate to grade level five remains stagnant at 57 percent during the period. There is also little possibility of achieving the target of enabling all children to complete a course of primary schooling by 2015. The literacy rate is supposed to have risen from 35 percent in 1990-91 to 58 percent in 2008-9, but this falls far short of the MDG target of 88 percent by 2015. Similarly, the Gender Parity Index for primary and secondary education stands at 0.84 and 0.80 respectively, showing little change from the rates of 0.82 and 0.75 in 2001-02.
At a recent consultative workshop on the national accelerated plan of action for achieving the MDGs, it was claimed by government spokesmen that considerable progress had been made towards achieving MDGs four and five pertaining to maternal and child health. But some basic figures run counter to the claim. According to reports by international agencies, the maternal mortality rate is 276 per 100,000 live births, the under-five mortality rate is 89/1,000 live births and infant mortality is 73/1,000 live births. The most unfortunate figure relates to the neonatal mortality rate, which remained stagnant around 55/1,000 live births during the last three decades. According to government sources, of the 34 indicators on which Pakistan reports progress to the UN and on which data is available, Pakistan is on track only on 10. Unchecked food inflation has nullified the steps taken to eradicate poverty, and the poverty headcount ratio, which was 17.2 in 2007-08 according to the National Poverty Survey, has increased. Food insecurity is an increasing threat to over 60 percent of the people in Pakistan. The reasons cited for lagging behind in fighting poverty by achieving MDG goals include internal and external economic challenges, natural disasters, internal conflicts, and institutional, administrative and political bottlenecks. During the September session of the UN General Assembly this year, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, explaining why Pakistan is not on track to achieving the MDG targets, told the gathering that a large proportion of our resources have been consumed by the war on terrorism. This is a standard excuse that Pakistan offers at every forum, though the world continues to ask why we have not been able to make progress on MDGs comparable to what the poor nations of sub-Saharan Africa have achieved. By all indications, Pakistan’s progress on achieving the MDGs is disappointing. Reports prepared by national and international bodies show that Pakistan will not be able to reach the MDGs by 2015, as it is short of almost all its targets on the time scale. Regarding the eradication of poverty and hunger, the reports say some progress has been made but the 2015 target is unlikely to be achieved.
In their various reports, civil society organisations have stressed that Pakistan will have to launch a new drive for internal resource mobilisation as well as divert resources from other non-productive pursuits and activities to move speedily towards achieving the MDGs. There is still half a year left to the goal and we can even now get our act together to achieve what other less well endowed nations have done. We need to devise a new national development agenda and a more responsive policy framework for this purpose. The first step towards this would be to learn from the experience of various countries in Asia and Latin America, which have successfully lifted the marginalised sections of their populations above the poverty line. Action against poverty needs to be taken at two levels. In the first category should be special food-and-cash schemes as part of a larger social safety net targeting the poorest of the poor in the urban slums and the rural hinterland who have no employable skills and face food insecurity on a daily basis. On a wider canvas, poverty can be fought only through a special package of policy measures designed to accelerate growth both in the agricultural and industrial sectors, launch new employment generation programmes and ensure a more equitable distribution of national income. Poverty is not evil but to remain poor and to accept poverty is really bad. In Pakistan, poverty is increasing day by day. Effective steps of government are required to reduce it. Government should provide credit facilities and use labour intensives techniques of production to reduce the poverty.
The writer is a social and political activist based in Lahore and he can be reached at email@example.com