The images in Pakistan’s daily newspapers are medieval, more befitting a famine-hit state like North Korea: people jostling for bread and cooking oil, dying of cold in enforced power blackouts, getting thrashed by police for protesting the flour shortage, troops surrounding flourmills and escorting flour trucks, cars queueing for hours at the dwindling number of gas stations that still have supplies.
This is Pakistan 2008, after eight years of military rule and fancy economic growth figures: under-heated and under-fed in its coldest winter in two decades. The profoundly unpopular President, Pervez Musharraf, on the defensive over his increasing despotism, often resorts to boasting of growth averaging 7 per cent over the past four years. But this past winter his government has been unable to supply 24 hour electricity and gas, and has allegedly run out of the national staple: flour. Some factories have had to close down after power blackouts of up to 15 hours a day. Even affluent neighbourhoods are without electricity for at least four hours a day. Shop-owners either fork out extra cash for generators or lose customers. “My customers can’t see in the dark, so why would they come shopping?” says a garment trader in Rawalpindi.
Glittering growth figures belie the reality of 100 million people earning under two dollars a day, a deepening trade deficit which now exceeds the state’s foreign reserves, and a fiscal deficit expected to hit 6.5 per cent at the end of financial year 2007-08, 50 per cent higher than the target of 4.2 per cent.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Pakistan’s robust GDP growth has benefited a handful of its 165 million people and a handful of sectors like IT, telcoms, oil and gas, and banking. Agriculture-related sectors are not among them – and, with two-thirds of the population living in rural areas, the majority are reaping no rewards.
The price of a “roti” (the flat bread at the centre of most people’s meals) has doubled, bakers are raising prices of even non-wheat goods, and the cost of candles has more than doubled as demand soars in this era of “load shedding”, the local term for daily rationed power cuts. On the edge of the capital, residents still waiting for authorities to connect the gas forage in the forest for wood to warm their homes.
The dire shortage of essential commodities – flour, power, gas, water – is symptomatic of underlying structural imbalances which the Musharraf government has failed to address despite official prosperity. The major parties’ historic shyness for taking unpopular decisions merely deepens the misery.
The PPP’s populist ideology could stop them again from advocating the tough decisions needed to address, for one, the power shortage. The blackouts crippling industry and small business stem from a power deficit of 3,600 megawatts. Yet Pakistan has an untapped potential of an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 megawatts of hydro-electric power.
Tapping into the hydro potential means building controversial dams, some of which have been on hold for 20 years. One of them is the proposed Kalabagh Dam in northwestern Punjab, which stands to provide up to 5,000 megawatts of power and millions of acres of water storage.
“The PPP is unwilling to take such decisions because it is populist,” says
Rasul Bakhsh Rais, Professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Studies.
“In fact it’s an unsavoury option for any of the major parties. There is this notion in Pakistan that unless you have a national consensus, you can’t do anything.”
National unity is pushed by the PPP as one of their strong-points; never more so than in the wake of Benazir’s assassination on December 27. The outpouring of grief has been laden with lament for the loss of the most potent symbol of “Federation” – the unity of Pakistan’s four ethnically-distinct provinces plus the Northern Areas and part of divided Kashmir. The post-Benazir political discourse has focused heavily on her unifying effect of the varied ethnic groups from the Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and North West Frontier Province (NWFP), who only became a nation 61 years ago in the post-colonial subcontinental carve-up. The PPP would have everyone believe that they are the only party that represents all of Pakistan. When Bilawal Bhutto gave his first address, angry and grief-stricken just three days after his mother’s murder, he vowed to preserve the “Federation”. “Like all chairmen of the PPP, I will stand as a symbol of the Federation . I stand committed to the stability of the Federation.”