The Country Goes On (Daily Times April 10, 2010)

With Pakistan jumping from one political crisis to another and from one deadly blast to another, some times even an agnostic believes that this country is being run by God. But on the ground I think it is people’s survival instinct and desire to improve their standard of living which keeps the wheels of progress moving in Pakistan. The net positive contribution of the government, of any shade, is minimal.  Broadly speaking one can say our progress is in spite of the government.

My faith that the country would keep going is thanks to the resilient   working people. It is comforting in dark nights, when introspection nibbles on my heart. I learnt this at a young age in a Southern town of Punjab, Khanpur. Back in 1969, I was sent by the party to Khanpur as a student’s representative to attend a Kissan organisation’s meeting. I was going to the house of my host in a Tonga the day General Yahya Khan took over. My host was a pre-partition day’s peasant leader. I asked him worriedly “we have been struggling to get rid of one tired military dictator Ayub to bring democracy and now we have a fresh military General. What will now happen to the country? The peasant leader pointed out to the side where a man was tilling the land and said “Babu as long as people would continue to work for their living the life would go on.” After a pause he said “a country is its people and progress and their will to live a better life.” He didn’t have to explain further.

It doesn’t matter what you call your country, it is important that people should be happy and continue to progress. A country is because of its people, not otherwise. Now let’s fast-forward and see what keeps Pakistan going even in these worst of times. If you get depressed go to the fields where people are harvesting or tilling. Go see the factories, where workers are spinning yarn or loading cement bags. Go and attend a business seminar where young mangers are talking about harnessing the latest technology and marketing techniques. All of them have little time for constitutional intricacies and about the legal sword of Damocles hanging over the president’s head. They all want one thing – more productivity and better living through hard work.

In the last couple of weeks I attended two such seminars to remain updated about what movers of the economy are doing. It was refreshing to know in a seminar on mobile banking that how banks are planning to take banking facilities to the remote areas of the country through mobile phones. MCB President Atif Bajwa said it has taken Pakistan 63 years to have 30 million bank accounts but the mobile technology would now break this barrier and the number of accounts is expected to double in a few years. His optimism is based on the fact that there are around 50 million active mobile connections in the country. There is race among the banks now, to take banking to the remotest areas as mobile technology infrastructure has made it possible.

A drawing room cynic may say people do not have money to put in the banks. But what they fail to appreciate is that the fast movement of money and ability to use banking facilities would reduce the size of the cash economy. A whole ecology of economy and its monetary system has to be understood to appreciate the factors of change. Rough calculation shows that 35% Pakistanis over 25 years of age have a bank accounts, this is after providing for a small element of duplication of accounts. This isn’t bad.

All progress and new technology has always been scorned by a class of critics, who do not acknowledge the change it brings to our material and social life. Ayub Khan brought in television and people criticised him for introducing this luxury. Benazir Bhutto allowed cellular phones in the country and the cynics labeled it as a rich man’s toy. The cynics were not willing to buy that it is matter of economies of scale; perhaps they did not even understand this concept. And now we see that peasants and workers all have cell phones. It is not a luxury for them; it has connected them with their families and helped the self-employed to expand their business.

Hop across to another seminar on ‘Value Seekers”, organised by Aurora and the good story I hear is that the marketeers are now thinking how to get the rural and small towns markets. Why? Because in the last few years better crop prices have raised the purchasing power in these areas. And the out-reach of television is changing the consumption patterns. The urban media has failed to record this change, but marketeers have.

Now blame the rising consumerism, but the fact remains that changing consumption patterns are indicating social mobility. Yes, I would agree that there are many who have slipped below the poverty line and social mobility is moving in both directions. But if the consumption of those who moved up the ladder to the lower middle class rung in the rural areas is changing it is still a good sign. At the end of the day a rise in purchasing power stimulates growth. While the State Bank’s forecast is that the growth this year would be about 3%, given the fact that almost 50% economy is undocumented it can safely be guesstimated that the real growth would be in the region of 4%. It boils down to the fact the people of Pakistan keep the country going. If our politicians and judges would now call a truce and concentrate on economy, the fruits of people’s efforts would double if not more. (ayazbabar@gmail.com)

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