Thursday, November 29, 2007

For many Pakistanis, an Economic Emergency

(Courtesy The LA Times, Nov 28, 2007)
Henry Chu
MUSTAFABAD, PAKISTAN -- Mohammed Rafiq has only to look at his dinner table to find reasons to hate President Pervez Musharraf.

What would a meal be without chapati, the flatbread that is a staple of Pakistani cuisine? But flour, when you can get it, costs a third more than it did just a few months ago. How can anybody drink unsweetened tea? But the price of sugar has shot up by half.

"These are basic necessities," said Rafiq, 50. "The maximum wage for a laborer is 200 rupees a day [about $3.30]. How can he manage everything on that?"

Pakistanis' anger with Musharraf's military-backed government has hit a new high since Nov. 3, when he imposed de facto martial law. Civil liberties have been withdrawn, and images of bloodied protesters getting hustled away by police have sparked outrage here and abroad.

But the president's deepening unpopularity at home has as much to do with economic as political grievances. Conversations with ordinary Pakistanis quickly turn from the state of emergency of their national polity to the state of emergency afflicting their household budgets. Price hikes are routinely cited as one of the biggest problems, if not the biggest, facing the nation.

In Islamabad, the capital, Musharraf and his ministers frequently boast about Pakistan's robust annual economic growth rate of 8%. But on the ground in towns such as Mustafabad, outside the eastern city of Lahore, people complain of hard times.

Workers like Rafiq, who serves tea from a roadside stand, have watched in alarm as the cost of such staples as rice, tomatoes, onions and cooking oil seems to increase weekly.

For that alone -- never mind emergency rule, to which they also vociferously object -- Musharraf ought to go, many Pakistanis say.

"I'm 40 years old, and I've never seen a ruler like him," farmer Sajid Khan said in disgust. "The government has [lost] control over prices. Shopkeepers are raising prices however much they want, and there's no authority to check that."

"All of Pakistan is suffering," said Mohammed Aftab, a dark-bearded young driver. "It's all because of Musharraf."

Economists say the blame for steep inflation cannot be laid entirely at the government's door. Like other countries, Pakistan is a victim of the relentless climb of oil prices. Getting goods to the market, especially on the woefully inadequate roads, is a more expensive proposition than before. The rise in the price of crude also has boosted the cost of utilities such as electricity.

But policies directly within the government's purview have contributed to the problem, said economics professor Qais Aslam. The state price-support program for farmers, rather than benefiting them and consumers, has enriched middlemen and owners of flour and sugar mills -- many of them politically well-connected. They have hoarded their commodities and artificially pushed up prices.

And sectors that have shown impressive growth, such as services and real estate, have proved most profitable for the educated, landed Pakistanis who already occupy the upper stratum of society and shop at designer stores in big cities, not the millions who eke out hard lives in the villages. Annual per capita income in Pakistan is only $720, according to the World Bank.

"The government's policies have helped the rich make more money rather than helped the poor settle their budgets," said Aslam, who teaches at the University of Central Punjab in Lahore. "The economic gains have not been translated into social gains."

When Waseem Abbas peers out from behind the counter of his corner store here in dusty Mustafabad, he sees nothing for the government to brag about.

One of Musharraf's allies, the chief minister of Punjab province, came to the area recently for a pomp-filled ceremony marking the supposed completion of a road in front of Abbas' shop. Abbas just laughs, because the road is still in sorry shape, like so much else here, despite official self-congratulation over Pakistan's economic growth.

"How can you say that when you don't have electricity in this country, when you have load-shedding for five hours a day? How can you say there's prosperity?" said Abbas, who turned his anger on Musharraf. "He's a liar."

Customers sometimes quarrel with Abbas and his business partner, Abdul Razzaq, over the prices in their store. But the owners say they feel as hammered as anybody by an acute shortage of flour and by price hikes, since last year, of nearly 100% for rice and 100% for ghee, or clarified butter.

The simmering economic discontent has not translated directly into protests. The demonstrations that rocked Pakistan's streets after Musharraf's Nov. 3 edict were political, and were led by lawyers, human rights activists and other professionals.

Lower-income Pakistanis have shied away, out of grim economic reality. "We don't have time to go and protest," said Aftab, the driver. "If we do that, who will earn our money for us?"

But the significance of political change is not lost on them. Musharraf must step down as president, they say, because of his autocratic ways and the lack of improvement in their lives. An elected leader would at least feel a sense of obligation to voters and could be called to account for failing to deliver, they say.

"Democracy should come," Razzaq said. "Democracy is the only solution."

(Original version on,1,3970417.story?coll=la-headlines-world)

No comments: