Pakistan Drifts Towards An 'Eat The Rich' Situation

"From the mountains of Gilgit to the deserts of Thar, the story is the same—a tale of neglect, apathy, and a leadership more concerned with its petty personal gains than the welfare of its people"

Pakistan Drifts Towards An 'Eat The Rich' Situation

The entire edifice of Pakistan’s economic and political establishment is callous towards taxpayers’ concerns. It is not the scarcity of food that is the issue, but the dearth of leadership, the drought of vision ,and the famine of political will. In a land of 220 million, the ruling elites are feathering their owns nests, while the common man is left to scavenge for crumbs. Living a decent life and feeding one’s immediate family is not only a basic right but also a democratic dream. However, the vast majority finds that dream being shattered in this state of Pakistan, where earning a living has become an economic battle that the ordinary person can’t sustain under such a heavy weight of discriminatory economic arrangements.

Ahmed, a next-door neighbour and daily wage worker, knocked on my door. As soon as I came out, he burst into tears, telling me he didn't have enough money to buy one kilogram of beef, which was being sold at Rs 1100. Ahmed earns Rs 700 a day, struggling to feed his family. This symbolises the utter economic hardship the working class is facing. Despite working throughout the year, even beef is beyond their reach during religious rituals like Eid. One can imagine the daily economic struggle of this class in the face of sky-high inflation. Knocking on a neighbour’s door for help is a blow to one's dignity. Under compelling circumstances, people like Ahmed are experiencing indignities.

The quote, "When people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich," attributed to Jean Jacques Rousseau, one of the leading lights of the French Revolution, seems apt. The rich refer to King Louis XVI and the rest of the aristocracy, who lived glamorous lives, indifferent to the starving population, caused by an exploitative economic model that left ninety percent of people without purchasing power to buy mouldy bread to feed their families. The writings of intellectuals like Rousseau ignited flames of fury against the ruling hierarchy. Consequently, the hungry majority revolted against the well-fed minority—the policymakers—and dismantled longstanding towers of the political spectrum that had perpetuated economic pain on the masses. The indifferent government in Paris had used the ready-made method of taxing the already taxed to feed pot-bellied ruling elites. Pakistani elites are doing the same, failing to understand that such political callousness and economic apathy have severe consequences.

History witnesses that exploitative economic arrangements directed against wider sections of society have political baggage. The anger against the unjust system is gaining momentum in Pakistan, and angry clouds are whirling on the political landscape. The science of tax collection is based on taking and giving: the state takes and, in turn, gives all basic rights like food, clothing, health, education, protection of life and property, etc. What do Pakistanis get after being heavily taxed year after year? Citizens have to avail themselves of private education for their children and opt for private healthcare, given the poor learning outcomes of public schools and unsatisfactory healthcare in public hospitals. A large chunk of one’s income is spent on availing both private education and healthcare. Even citizens have to buy bottled water for drinking. In urban areas, people are robbed of their hard-earned money by the tanker mafia, as they need water for other household chores. The rising cases of mobile snatching in cities and burglary in houses give a grim reminder of law enforcement agencies' failure to rein in such crimes. Those who offer resistance during both mobile and cash snatching are sometimes cold-bloodedly murdered, leaving a message for would-be victims not to resist.

The middle class will have to bear the brunt of the price hike as the general sales tax (GST) was increased from 17 percent to 18 percent in order to raise 170 billion rupees. Instead of reducing unnecessary government expenditures, in sweeping tax measures called exemptions, Rs 30 billion in sales tax exemptions have been revoked from the health sector alone and another Rs 47 billion from the poultry sector by the incumbent government. The withdrawal of exemptions in these two areas is going to fuel inflationary bouts to be borne by buyers in the coming months as price increases are passed on to consumers. The heavily taxed budget and its inflationary impact will drown both those already trapped in knee-deep debt, and make it hard for the salaried class to keep their home fires burning, given high inflation. Agriculture is the backbone of the country. Farmers can be called the spinal cord sustaining the body politic. Recent rises in electricity for tubewells and rising urea prices due to a drastic cut—from Rs 25 billion to Rs 3 billion—for fertiliser plants are set to increase production costs, leaving agriculture farming economically incapable. Earlier, due to faltering regulatory oversight, the fertiliser sector, after having received Rs 125 billion in subsidies, did not pass benefits to consumers. It thus suggests historical lip service meted out to crop growers.

This institutional apathy, accompanied by climate-induced calamities like heatwaves and abnormal rains, undermines agricultural output, leaving farmers economically vulnerable. While the poor, the salaried, and lower middle classes decry utter economic indifference to their urgent needs, the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority (NEPRA) dropped a post-budget bomb—fixed charges of Rs 200 to Rs 1,000 a month in the electricity bills of five residential consumers’ categories depending upon the consumption of units a month. This will help the serpent-like Discos suck hard-earned cash from cash-strapped consumers. As per the details shared by a certain newspaper, "The domestic consumers using 301-400 units a month will pay from July 1, 2024, the fixed charges of Rs 200 per month and those using 401-500 will pay Rs 400, and the end electricity consumers consuming 501-600 are to pay Rs 600. The residential consumers who use 601-700 units will pay Rs 800 a month and those who use above 700 units will pay fixed charges of Rs 1,000 a month. The residential consumers using the ToU (time of use) meter will also pay Rs 1,000 fixed charges a month." Remember that Sui Southern Gas Company Limited is already charging the fixed charges of Rs 400 to Rs 1,000 and onward from its subscribers. The tariff levied in utility bills, accompanied by fixed charges—a fleecing public scheme prioritised by economic predators—has triggered psychological trauma for subscribers who must choose between purchasing food items and paying ballooning utility bills. Under such circumstances, people are found psychologically depressed, some compromising their food intake or pulling their children from private educational institutions following their failure to afford educational expenses, and some defaulting.

Social media campaigns have been launched by those bearing the brunt of taxes and fixed charges imposed on those already left on the margins. A particular social media post highlighted that a peon earning between thirty and forty thousand rupees pays utility bills, including irrational taxes, while those drawing handsome salaries with perks and privileges receive free units of gas, electricity, and hundreds of litres of petrol. No rocket science is required to understand that the beneficiaries are a privileged few who decide the political and economic destiny of the masses. Tax increases on the salaried class have generated unprecedented anger across various sections of society against those devising economic targets through predatory policies aimed at those already contributing to the national economy and subsequently struggling for survival. According to Nadeem Husain, a Boston-based economist, "Burdening the salaried class further would demoralise those already making significant contributions to the national income." Reportedly, as many as 4.5 million individuals are unemployed in the country, with youth aged 15-24 having the highest unemployment rate of 11.1 percent, followed by 7.3 percent among the 25-34 age bracket, according to the Economic Survey 2023-24. Young Pakistanis are increasingly inclined to leave their country for better economic prospects abroad. As many as 800,000 Pakistanis left the country due to the rising cost of living caused by taxes and job losses following multiple economic crises last year, not to mention those desperate ones leaving through illegal immigration, taking perilous boat journeys. This flight of human capital, comprising educated and skilled youth, will leave the country intellectually and professionally dry.

“Working Children” by Rafia Zakaria sheds light on the murky environment the nation’s builders—children—are muddling through. It is estimated that Pakistan has over 12 million children who are victims of child labour. According to data compiled in 2021, the vast majority of these children work in the agricultural sector, helping with planting and harvesting wheat and cotton. They also work in the deep-sea fishing and poultry sectors. Around 1.5 million are forced to beg, while thousands are exploited as sex workers. This tells a tale of perpetuated economic impoverishment of the ordinary people, who are left with no option but to leave their innocent children in bonded labour as breadwinners. Make no mistake, we are a country with the world’s second-highest number of out-of-school children, with an estimated 22.8 million aged between 5-16, representing 44 percent of this age group, based on UNICEF data. There are multiple reasons behind this, but poverty tops the list. It is a violation of the constitutional commitment, as Article 25A ensures free and compulsory education for the age group being discussed.

The opposition leader in the National Assembly (NA) assailed the budget presented for fiscal year (FY 25) as economic terrorism against the people of Pakistan, as if his previous PTI-led government had ensured streams of milk and honey for the economically squeezed population. All past and present rulers are naked in this bath called economic punishment to the ordinary in their respective finance bills—the privileged got tax exemptions, big businesses were granted incentives in the name of ease of doing business, whereas the nose of direct and indirect taxes was tightened around the neck of the masses. This has been the case over the years, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel in terms of public welfare in the foreseeable future. Political commentators and economic experts have questioned the rationale behind reviving the 'parliamentarian's development scheme,' a form of political patrimony to the tune of Rs 500 billion, despite ongoing financial constraints—not to mention the increase in their perks and privileges like the traveling allowance. The privileged and the powerful have maintained a monopoly over the country’s natural resources, leaving the hoi polloi to fend for themselves.

The rapacious ruling clique must establish Pakistan's economic house on a democratic distribution of wealth before it is too late. The clock is ticking

Oliver Goldsmith's golden words "law grinds the poor, rich men rule the law" aptly describe the perpetual poverty perpetuated by discriminatory economic policies. Despite charging subscribers increasingly high prices for package bundles, rural areas continue to experience slow cellular internet access. Emboldened by the national economic model that prioritises profits over people, these companies are more focused on making money than providing satisfactory services. Meanwhile, regulatory structures remain dormant, leaving ordinary subscribers to deal with such issues on their own. Through predatory economic policies, the aristocracy and their crony capitalists have accumulated wealth beyond known sources of income and invested it in other countries. The Panama Papers and Dubai leaks give credence to the claim that they are too powerful to be investigated for alleged tax evasion and money laundering. While white-collar individuals are being held accountable for their wealth, the powerful remain uninvestigated. We see the sacred cows are buying commercial property and islands abroad. Feeding sacred cows, individuals or institutions, has bled the country dry. The finance bill, which offers no relief for the poor and taxes the already taxed salaried class, is seen as a threat to the remaining resources of the poor and the salaried class, ultimately leaving them with little purchasing power. The economically impoverished and the white-collar workers have little political representation in decision-making centres and are burdened with taxes tailored to appease creditors like the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Uzair Younus, an economist associated with Asian Group, a strategic advisory group based in Washington, noted that "Due to the credibility gap in Pakistan's willingness and capacity to tax sectors like retail and property, the IMF insists on revenue through proven methods, such as the petroleum levy and sales tax." Functional inequality, coined during the Ayub Khan regime, was touted as a prescription for economic progress and financial sustainability in the country. However, it consolidated economic power in the hands of the infamous 22 families—not to mention in the name of allowing such inequality during the formative phase of the new state—Pakistan, which has multiplied over time. After 77 years, the economic wealth is concentrated in the hands of elites, who argue that difficult economic decisions are necessary. Fleecing the voiceless majority, in the name of difficult decisions, is a novel manipulative monetary mechanism maintained over decades by those in economic decision-making avenues.

Patronage to authoritarian populism has failed the nation and produced unruly political workers. The newly launched 'Awaam Pakistan' party by disgruntled PMLN leaders, Former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Former Finance Minister Miftah Ismail, has appeared on the political landscape, promising revolutionary economic approaches. However, its leaders were previously part of the status quo. Pakistan faces multiple crises, including economic instability, climate-induced calamities, political unrest, financial vulnerability, institutional incompetence, and right-wing extremism. The country needs a new political contract that shares the fruits of independence. Without structural reforms and broadening the tax net to include the untaxed, the budget historically tailored to pacify creditors like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will continue to strangle the masses. In his insightful thread in Dawn titled "People vs the System," Khurram Husain convincingly concludes that "The whole system is animated by a massive funnelling of wealth from the poor to the rich. This flow continues during periods of boom as well as austerity. The taxation system is designed to facilitate this flow, while much of the property rights regime in the country is designed to facilitate the appropriation of wealth from the poor and funnel it to the rich." An intellectual establishment of columnists and writers who question the credibility of the prevailing economic model imposed by ruling cliques is silenced, labelled as against national interests.

The burning issue of affordable bread remains a persistent problem for the marginalised, but who cares about the voiceless? The coalition governments in our dear country are always fragile. The coalition partners are motivated by vested interests; hence, they try to get their pound of flesh instead of putting pressure on those in charge of ministries to deliver public services. Parliament has been reduced to a rubber stamp. Parliamentarians only concern themselves with their own internal conflicts, never rising above petty party lines. The parliamentary crop is contaminated to the core, making it wishful thinking to expect pro-people economic policies from them. The finance bill finds few takers in the country. The tax-laden budget poses an existential threat to the survival of poor people. The budget will lay inflationary mines for those who were already struggling with economic survival. Inflation in Pakistan is multifaceted, unleashing price hikes caused by taxes like the GST, fixed charges, and man-made price hikes due to hoarding and black marketing, thanks to a lack of checks and balances in terms of price control. The price hike has raised its ugly head. On the back of the budget, the prices of powdered milk for babies, cooking oil, and rice have surged. People, especially the ordinary sections of society, are grappling with ever-increasing prices of medicine, making it a bitter pill to swallow. There is a nexus between cruel capitalists and policymakers.

The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan has directive principles that contribute to the social and economic well-being of the population irrespective of their socio-economic backgrounds. Article 38: Promotion of social and economic well-being of the people - “The State shall - (a) secure the well-being of the people, irrespective of sex, caste, creed, or race, by raising their standard of living, by preventing the concentration of wealth and means of production and distribution in the hands of a few to the detriment of general interest and by ensuring equitable adjustment of rights between employers and employees, and landlords and tenants; (b) provide for all citizens, within the available resources of the country, facilities for work and adequate livelihood with reasonable rest and leisure; (c) provide for all persons employed in the service of Pakistan or otherwise, social security by compulsory social insurance or other means; (d) provide all basic necessities of life, such as food, clothing, housing, education, and medical relief, for all such citizens, irrespective of sex, caste, creed, or race, as are permanently or temporarily unable to earn their livelihood on account of infirmity, sickness, or unemployment; (e) reduce disparity in the income and earnings of individuals, including persons in the various classes of the service of Pakistan; (f) eliminate riba as early as possible."

From the mountains of Gilgit to the deserts of Thar, the story is the same—a tale of neglect, apathy, and a leadership more concerned with its petty personal gains than the welfare of its people. If the status quo continues to facilitate and feed the privileged few, the deprived majority will be left with no option but to protest against the unequal distribution of wealth. On the heels of a tax-heavy budget, various cities are witnessing public protests against taxes levied on utility bills and food items. Those at the helm of the country's affairs need to realise that during the 2022 rains of biblical proportions and subsequent flash floods, climate refugees facing food shortages and shelter issues stormed government godowns and ration distribution points, leaving the authorities helpless to deal with the desperate displaced persons. Left with no purchasing power to feed their families, the people will take to the streets, protesting against deprivation, hunger, and homelessness. Seeing the protesters from their balconies, Pakistani elites like Marie Antoinette will ask, "Why are people crying out?" "They are hungry," the political advisors will say. The elites will utter the same, "Let them eat cake," symbolising utter ignorance of political and economic realities and subsequent consequences.

There have been public cries against burdening the already burdened with taxes imposed and the consequent tsunami of inflation from Karachi to Kashmir. The deprived sections of Pakistan are rising, their voices echoing through the mountains and plains. They are demanding justice, equality, and a share in the pie of progress. They seek an end to the tyranny of feudal lords, the greed of corporations, and the apathy of the elite. If these full-throated cries go unheard, they will transform into a revolt against those seen as oppressors sitting in glass houses, calling all economic shots. The future of Pakistan belongs to its people, not the privileged few. The rapacious ruling clique must establish Pakistan's economic house on a democratic distribution of wealth before it is too late. The clock is ticking. A visionary writer endowed with Charles Dickens’ pen power will begin his intellectual enterprise, "A Tale of Two Pakistans," writing, "It was an age of prosperity, an age of penury; an age of abundance, an age of scarcity; an age of development, an age of neglect; an age of happiness, an age of hopelessness; an age of independence, an age of despotism; an age of light, an age of darkness; an age of patronage, an age of punishment; an age of extravagance, an age of deprivation; an age of perks and privileges, an age of austerity; an age of taxation, an age of exemptions; an age of exploitation, an age of difficult decisions; an age of sustainability, an age of fragility; an age of accountability, an age of clean chits; an age of speedy justice, an age of delayed justice; an age of social inclusion, an age of gate-keeping. In one part of Pakistan, the escalator of economic enrichment lifted people up, while in another, the slippery path of economic and social vulnerability pulled them down."

The writer is a freelance contributor. He may reached at Nazeer tweets at @nazeerarijo.