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The killer poverty in Pakistan

29 April, 2008

By Dr. Ghayur Ayub


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Poverty has four facets. Doctors link it with daily calories; the economists with daily income; the human rightists with basic rights; and the intellectuals with cerebral calibrations. Pakistan is hit with uninterrupted intensity of moderate to severe degree by all. In this write-up, I’ll concentrate on physical hunger and its possible consequences.

A news item caught my attention in June 2006. It simply said that three sisters, Sanna Naureen, Humaira Naureen and Rukhsana Naureen from Khushab, collectively ended their lives due to abject poverty. They were students of 1st year, 3rd year and MA. According to information, they had no problem with their studies and like the other students they attended their classes but, when it came to socializing; they hit a wall erected by immense poverty separating them from rest of the class. They could not afford simple things like decent clothing. They wanted to have new clothes so they could be fashionable like the other girls around them. Instead, they came to college in their old worn out clothes sometimes exchanging them with each other. They just wanted to be seen like others. This wasn’t much to ask for but in reality it was a lot, for they could not afford simple luxuries of life.

Who could they blame for their desolation; their parents, themselves, the society, the government? This question must have gone through their minds as they grew up in their poor surroundings. They must have realized they were poor from no fault of their own. Their young souls could not blame their parents for they found them very loving and caring. They would have seen their parents as good and decent human beings.  They must have seen the colossal pain on their parent’s faces, watching their growing daughters suffering from the lack of basic needs. Knowing about the pains their parents were going through would have added to the burden of the desperation they carried on their weak shoulders. They must have felt suffocated in the pit of vulnerability, finding themselves growing in emotional turmoil and rational uproar. It must have been difficult for them to separate emotions from rationality under the crushing weight of despair and helplessness.

No one would ever know what happened that fateful night. But I presume, they must have got together to find a solution for their miseries and spoke tenderly while their parents slept next door. They probably discussed the poverty which brought them nothing but shame in the college and how difficult it was to face their friends; to live a normal life in the village and in their neighborhood. To them, it was all desperation, gloom and agony with no way out. This led them to the ultimate decision to take their own lives as a way to get out of their misery. I imagine them hugging each other, crying quietly for they really didn’t want to do what they were about to. But they felt that they were left with no choice. All the doors were slammed in their faces; the door of living with hope; the door of living with pride; the door of living with respect; and the door of living with value; all the doors that would give them self-esteem. The society, the people, friends and family had failed to ease their pain and release them from humiliation. They knew they had lost everything and could not live with unending miseries and continuous pains. They had lost faith in everything. Faith failed them in stopping their rising humility and sliding pride.

Then the eldest sister Rukhsana must have opened a bottle she had bought earlier with her food money and one by one they started drinking from it gulp by gulp. I can visualize them crying quietly gulping, slowly very slowly, until their grip started loosening, their bodies started slackening and their weeping started diminishing. An hour later, complete silence must have followed in that dark musty room as they went into eternal sleeps; still hugging. Now, they were free of pain, free of misery and free of complexities of life. Three young budding souls shortened their life because they didn’t want to be a burden on others. They didn’t want to add more misery to the already poverty ridden life of their family. They were tired of everything. At some stage, they must have thought of living happily like others around them. They must have had ambitions, hopes, desires and wishes. Everything disappeared in thin air with a few gulps from that shiny poisonous bottle.

When they were buried in unmarked graves the next day, a government official was reporting to the media that poverty in Pakistan had fallen from 34% to 24 %. I thought of the Second Caliph, Hadhrat Omar, who pledged responsibility for even a dog dying of hunger in his government let alone a human being. And here were three college girls having taken their own lives because they could not have the basic needs of life. 

In Pakistan, this was not the only incidence where poverty made people choose death over life in the recent years. The newspapers are full of stories, where poor people kill themselves or their children because they can’t afford to live. Last week in Lahore, a desperate mother, Bushra jumped in front of a speedy train along with her two children and got rid of poverty and miserable life. It must be extremely painful for people like Bushra to see their children crying restlessly for food or their ailing parents withering away from hunger. Our memory is still fresh, about a man in Punjab who killed his children and then went to the police station to surrender and confess. In his statement he said that he had quickened their death from what would have been a slow death of hunger. According to a survey, in the last three years 3000 people lost their lives because of poverty. In a matter of percentage it is not a big number but in the terms humanity it is a horrific figure.

And what about the mother in Multan, who took her young children under 7 years, to the market not to buy something for them, but to sell them. The innocence on the faces of those poor children was heartbreaking when they said that they hadn’t eaten anything for three days. According to their mother, she had the choice of killing them, selling her body or selling them. She opted for the latter. Could anyone blame her?

Poverty in Pakistan is targeting our society in more than one way. Apart from physical death of what so called ‘a few’, it is killing the overall psyche of our society. The recent political events have diverted our attention from the actual problems facing the common people. As a result, unwittingly, we are becoming indifferent to the existence of real issues and are loosing the track of reality. This is more so true, with most politicians and a good number of elites. For example, not a single day goes by, when we don’t see them arguing on restoration of judges, removing of Musharaf and so on so forth. It is not that these issues are less important, but poverty and the related concerns are equally significant. It is poverty which is going to haunt them once the judges are restored and the issue of Musharaf is sorted out. Only two days ago, the president of the World Bank made world poverty as the main issue facing the global communities. It is the tentacles attached to poverty which will enhance the already pronounced problems facing Pakistan. The politicians should remember that poverty caused by unemployment and rising prices is going to hang them from their necks after they get into power. It is a known fact that poverty has played an essential role in major revolutions of the world.

The mother who put her children on sale was from the hometown of the Prime Minister, where just four weeks earlier his brother, Mujtaba Gilani gave an impressive press conference full of promises. That conference was given its due share of footage, but when it came to the follow up on the story of the poor woman in print and electronic media, there was none. It is this type of indifference which is going to fall back on us. Such apathy coupled with rising poverty and its tedious tentacles will soon be putting this country on the path other than democracy with disastrous consequences. I remember when CoD was given the final touches in London; it was Mr Shahbaz Sharif who overwhelmingly stressed on giving top priority to alleviation of poverty. Once, I heard him talking about problems facing the people of Pakistan. He promised, if given a chance, he would do everything possible to eliminate poverty from the country. I looked at his face and saw nothing but commitment. I knew; he believed in what he said. 

Now that a coalition government dominated by PPP in the centre and PML-N in the key province of Punjab is in place; God has given him some opportunity to tackle this curse. He is known as good administrator and target achiever. Keeping his personality in view, let’s hope, he would try making Punjab a model to deal with this issue. If, for some reason, things don’t work out the way he wants them to; the resourceful Punjab will slide further on the path of killing poverty, followed by the four less resourceful provinces. Restoring independent judiciary is considered by many as beginning of a soft revolution in Pakistan. A continuous slide into poverty might change this beginning into a bloody revolt with all its unimaginable cost. Let us not forget, that the three young college girls took their lives without targeting those who could well be the cause of their poverty and so, ultimately, their death. One can but imagine what will happen, if all the poverty-stricken, frustrated people turn their eyes and focus them on those who are grouped in the class of ‘haves’? Some say, we may not be far from that happening. I tend to agree.

End.

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