ISLAMABAD – The Upper House of Parliament in one of its sittings last year was presented with the poverty figures of Pakistan, which were duly contradicted by the Opposition. Minister of State for Finance, Omer Ayub, informed the Senate that only 32.1 percent of the population is living below the poverty line and the strategy adopted by the government to curb the menace of poverty in the country would result in bringing down this figure to 22 percent by the year 2010.
While the Opposition and the economists might quibble over these figures, a non-economist can only shake his head in bewilderment because he knows that the figures presented to the Senate have been fudged. There is no consensus on a poverty line in Pakistan. International agencies claim that the number of people living below the poverty line is well above the official claims. The agencies also claim that the depth and severity of poverty has also remained more or less constant, and while urban poverty fell, rural poverty rose, widening the gap between the city and the countryside.
Poverty data anomalies continue to linger. One can only conclude that it is perhaps to escape accountability to the donors who have been granting loan upon loan to alleviate the scourge of poverty from the country.
What all the analysts and their statistics fail to reveal is the multifaceted face of poverty in the country. Every day we encounter the grim face of poverty when we see children in dirty and torn clothes. Barefoot, unkempt, malnourished and dejected, they fend not only for themselves, but for their families as well by begging for food, alms or even worse, scavenging in bins and garbage dumps. We are confronted with poverty when we see the agony parents experience while cradling their critically sick child, as they cannot afford the high cost of healthcare. We turn a blind eye when poverty is manifested in tender hands toiling in adverse weather conditions. We silently curse the rhetoric of the policy makers when poverty in all its ugliness is presented in the form of a child crying for food.
For the common man, who has no access to shelter, food, education and health facilities, employment opportunities, political/decision making participation, social mobilization, access to services, infrastructure and information (which are also the parameters used to measure poverty apart from income), poverty is very much a grim reality manifested in his everyday life.
The majority of the poor, who subsist on less than $1 a day and live in squalor with no hope of their fate changing, suffer daily from the frustrations and indignity that accompany their state. Their concern lies in finding the means to provide, if not two at least one meal for their children.
O thou who art encumbered with a family,
Think no more of ever enjoying freedom.
Cares for children, raiment and food
Restrain thee from the heavenly kingdom.
Every day I renew my determination
To wait upon God until the night.
In the night, while tying the knot of prayers,
I think what my children will eat on the morrow.
A large number of children live in slums, in utter poverty, facing hunger and lack of other basic amenities such as healthcare and education. The living conditions in the slums offer tremendous challenges that undermine their quality of life. Insufficient clean water and sanitation, overcrowding, poor access to healthcare, high infant mortality rates, and death resulting from lack of hygiene and nourishment, plague their lives.
Millions of children miss out on their childhood as a result of poverty. Poverty deprives them of the opportunities to survive, develop and thrive. It prevents them from enjoying equal opportunities. This makes children more vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, violence, discrimination and stigmatization.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Dwelling on the intricacies of poverty is enough to make us hang our heads in shame. Let us renew our commitment to improving the infant mortality rate, life expectancy, access to nutrition and health facilities, access to clean water and sanitation, literacy and other aspects of human existence that affect the overall quality of life.
Let us not forget that eradicating poverty is more than a matter of increasing income to purchase market goods and services. It entails more than expanding GNP. It entails creating jobs, meeting basic needs, respecting human rights and popular participation in the development process. The struggle against poverty is simultaneously a struggle for human dignity, sustainable development and peace.