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Intoxication of poverty?

One of the most odious people in Pakistan put the words in the title together. He shall remain unnamed because his pathetic identity doesn’t matter. He is just symptomatic of a deeper disease among the powerful. He called the anti-encroachment drive in Karachi to be a cure to ‘gharee bikanasha’ (intoxication of poverty), on national television. The general idea behind this perverse coinage of the concept is the deeply Victorian idea that the weakest are where they are, because they don’t work hard enough and that poverty is a moral failing. So, the poor and weak, if they appropriate public or private land, intoxicated in their sense of entitlement and victimhood, they need to be set straight by the state. Without engaging in gratuitous moral outrage, or delivering a lecture or elementary sociology, I would like to point out some basic facts about urban life that I have learned through my research in the country.
Thanks to the Pakistani state’s acts of commission and omission the small farmer is an increasingly endangered species in rural Pakistan. In the interest of maintaining the stability of the Raj, the British colonial government built a state machinery that was structurally aligned towards the large farmers. In the post-independence era, the structural imperatives of that state have induced it to regress into literally become an instrument of the large farmers, that the state used to patronise. The tenant farmer meanwhile is being squeezed out by increasing mechanisation of the agricultural sector. The upshot of the above trends is that the small farmer is being squeezed out of agriculture. This is coming about partially through indebtedness to input suppliers, but mostly through unchecked theft of water, and drawing down of the water table by the large farmers. The consequence is that Pakistan has the highest urbanization rate in Asia. Teeming masses of Pakistanis are heading to the cities, where there is at least hope. In rural Pakistan, even hope has gone extinct, thanks to the political economy and neo-liberalization of agriculture by the Musharraf regime and then PML(N).
In the cities the last time, the state built or provided affordable housing was in the 1970s. Since then the urbanites are more than happy for the cheap domestic help, factory and service sector workers, but not happy with their physical presence when they are not working. The working bodies of the poor have to rest, eat, go to the toilet and God forbid even be happy and socialise somewhere. The poor who are not employed by the rich, also have to earn their living somewhere. That somewhere, is typically where the rich and powerful again insert themselves into the poor’s lives, most insidiously.
No poor person in Pakistan has the temerity to plant her/himself on public or private land in urban Pakistan. It is way too expensive, and subject to too many claims by too many powerful actors for a rural to urban migrant or an urban poor to lay claim to for earning a livelihood, or simply existing. Public and private land is typically appropriated by powerful crime syndicates in cahoots with state authorities. The land may then be sold and rented out to intermediate crime syndicates, who then rent and sell them to the desperately poor.Those poor have no chance of affording the formal rent or real estate market. And then these poor and the weakest of the urbanites get trapped in a cycle of paying rent and protection money to crime syndicates because they have no other options for spaces for living or earning a livelihood.It is not coincidence that poor informal neighbourhoods are dens of crime.
The residents of informal neighbourhoods are victimised directly by crime syndicates and by the state, under whose patronage these syndicates exist. The informal neighbourhoods are integral to the urban vote bank politics. It is not out of love for Imran Khan, Nawaz Sharif, Zardari or Pashtun nationalists that these areas vote for them-it is out of fear. When the calculus of power changes in government palaces and corporate headquarters, and the law seemingly wakes up-these very victims get victimised again. Meanwhile the encroachments of Bhara Kahu, Bani Gala, Bahria Town, Defence Housing authority by the rich and the powerful-get compassionate or financially motivated regularization.



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