Inequality in its numerous forms defines our country’s social fabric. This concept of inequality is based on entrenched disparities in health, education, rights, income and every sector of the country. These disparities are either based on gender, religion, caste, color or other characteristics but the major reason is the manipulation of policies by powerful individuals or groups. Trends show that people and regions with less power are systematically discriminated against by the powerful. With time, the pervasive inequality is making it difficult for the vulnerable segments of society to survive.
This year’s UNDP Pakistan National Human Development Report 2020 on Inequality gives significant insights into the deep-rooted, multi-layered inequality in Pakistan’s various sectors. Let’s have a look at the major ones.
Labour: Pakistan has a huge surplus of the working class. Despite the 1961’s Minimum Wage Ordinance, barely 53% of total employed workers earned a minimum wage in 2018, i.e., less than PKR 17,500/month. Historically, being an agrarian economy, 38.9% of the country’s total employed workers are engaged in the agriculture sector. On the other hand, only 1.1% of the total farmers in the country are feudal elite owning a whopping 22% of the country’s total farming area, enjoying all the privileges like an extremely low tax rate on agricultural income with high output rates, subsidized electricity, fertilizers, tractors and major access to watercourses.
Gender: Pakistan ranks 151st out of 153 countries, ahead of only Iraq and Yemen, on Global Gender Gap Index 2020. Making only 22% of the country’s total labour force, women earned a meager average of $1,673 compared to an average of $9,335 earned by men in 2018-19. The country performed poorly in terms of educational attainment, health and economic participation, and opportunities for women. Keeping in view the ever-increasing gender-based violence cases, Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2018 ranked Pakistan the sixth most dangerous country for women to live in.
Education: The quality of education in Pakistan has remained stagnant throughout the years. Pakistan has been standing still at a literacy rate of 59.13% since 2017. While the literacy rate in the developed world is hovering around 100%, nearly 23 million children are out of school and another 22 million are enrolled in low-quality public schools in Pakistan. These 45 million children will grow up to join less skilled and low-income labour forces as compared to those spending millions in private institutions, resulting in inequality perpetuated on an intergenerational basis.
Health: In Pakistan, access to quality health services depends on how rich you are. With around 21 million people having no access to drinkable water around their homes, clean drinking water has become a luxury. As per the estimates of Pakistan Medical Association (PMA), 30 percent of all diseases and 40 percent of all deaths are due to poor water quality in Pakistan. Similarly, while the world has successfully eradicated polio, it remains endemic to Pakistan despite over 100 rounds of vaccination carried out in the past decade. Unregulated private hospitals are money minting machines while government-run hospitals are in a sorry state. The elite class including politicians and bureaucrats rush abroad for their medical needs leaving the poor in the lurch with the dilapidated health system of the country.
Justice: In 2019, there was a massive backlog of 1.75 million pending cases. Keeping in view the costs of filing, hiring, paperwork, traveling and unregulated lawyers’ fees, the lower quintile of the country can just dream of getting timely justice in Pakistan. On the other hand, people believe that the cases of politicians and powerful elite are prioritized, fostering the culture of inequality further. Such believes lead people towards informal justice systems like jirgas, panchayats and other tribal and feudal gatherings. However, these systems are mostly headed by the influential people of that locality who make decisions to keep their dominance, hence keeping the inequality intact.
How unequal is our society? Let’s try to fathom it from the fact that the privileges enjoyed by different vested interests of the powerful in Pakistan amounted to PKR 2.66 trillion in 2017-18 which is over 7% of the country’s GDP. Simultaneous efforts are the need of the hour. Unless those in power are ready to share the privileges with the have-nots, this vicious circle of deeply ingrained inequality will never cease to exist.
(The writer is a freelance writer and a human development researcher)
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021