October issue 2010

By | Business | News & Politics | Published 14 years ago

KARACHI: It was a new nylon rope. The young man probably bought it right before committing suicide. With the corpses of his wife and three young children lying before him, he must have struggled to make the hangman’s noose — not everyone can figure it out in the first attempt — and stress surely could not have helped. It isn’t difficult to imagine how he attached the hook with shaking hands to the roof. And when his lifeless body was discovered, his lean six-foot frame seemed to have stretched — his toes almost touched the floor.

The dramatic circumstance of his death notwithstanding, 25-year-old Muhammad Asif was an ordinary man, living an ordinary life. A resident of one of the low-income localities of Karachi, he was among thousands of men who worked in nearby factories.

Asif earned Rs 7,000 a month from his job. “He was one of our best employees,” the head of the human resource department at the factory told Newsline. “We know the troublemakers, and he was not one of them.”

A few months before his suicide, his friends reveal Asif started doing odd jobs to make extra cash. As a result he earned enough to send his kids to school and for tuition. And he had bought a scooter a month earlier, albeit on instalments.

All who knew him say that nothing about Asif suggested that he was capable of, or desperate enough to take his own life, or that of his family.

But in the wee hours of September 18, he strangled his wife and children — the latter all under four years of age — before killing himself. In a note left in the school diary of his son, he blamed poverty for the extreme step — and while the forensics reports are still awaited, the police corroborate this. Asif was just one of an increasing number of young Pakistani men who have been driven to take their own lives.

Safdar Jabbar, a union leader in a multinational manufacturer of automobile tyres that employs people from Landhi, has led strikes to help workers bargain for better salaries. He squarely lays the blame for the escalating suicide rate in Pakistan on the increasing poverty rate. “There is so much desperation nowadays that it is manifesting itself in this most extreme manner: suicide,” says Jabbar. He points out the number of political and ethnic parties, which have become active in residential localities around the industrial estates in Karachi. “What is prompting young activists to become so violent? It is because they do not get jobs. They come home wasted, and then they watch glamorous TV shows, which cause them to feel a further sense of deprivation.”

This desperation often manifests itself in violence fuelled by politicians who feed off the political, racial and religious divides. Karachi’s narrow streets, with their paan-stained walls and open sewerage canals, have been bifurcated among political lines, with different parties ruling them as their respective kingdoms. Here, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the Awami National Party and the Sunni Tehreek all hold sway. Ironically, the Urdu-speaking Mohajirs, the Pathans and the fundamentalists share work space in the same factories. They also suffer the same problems of damaged or non-existent water lines, choked gutters, frequent power outages and the rising prices of food. However, their alienation from one another is so entrenched, that not only do they fail to collectively attempt to solve their issues, their only exchanges are usually hostile ones.

Many of the members of these political/religious groups are unemployed. And while some political favourites have been given jobs, these are usually in loss-making public enterprises like Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), where the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party-backed union holds sway. Or they are employed in the city government — for example the MQM-sponsored traffic wardens. However, they too are in bad shape as they have not received their pay for months.

In this situation, as the numbers of the unemployed soars and the pittances earned by those employed is not remotely commensurate with skyrocketing prices, desperation runs high. An increasing number of people are thus pushed to the extreme: taking their own lives. According to the figures compiled by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), there have been 30 cases of poverty-related suicides in Karachi alone since January 2010. Last year more than 119 people took their lives because of financial problems.

While economic woes are certainly not the only cause of these suicides, poverty has unarguably been a triggering factor. In a developing country like Pakistan where many of the 170 million people earn less than one dollar a day, a little surge in the price of flour and edible oil can be devastating.

In January 2007, one kilogramme of masur daal cost Rs 42. It now costs Rs 105. A 10kg sack of flour was tagged at Rs 160. On September 25, 2010, it was selling at Rs 330. Sugar was Rs 32 and now it is near Rs 80.

Not surprisingly then, when economists run calculations on different indicators of prosperity, the results are gloomy: inflation has risen by 12% according to official estimates. And according to Mahmood Khalid, a professor at the Pakistan Institute of Economic Development, Islamabad, the calculation of the indirect relationship between suicidal behaviour and inflation numbers, which the government bases on the Consumer Price Index, is erroneous — it’s underestimated. “This index does not reflect the actual picture,” he says.

“It has been a decade since a revision of the products, which are used to determine price trends, was carried out. Time has changed. Priorities change as well. Today, everyone spends on cellular phones. The penetration of so many TV channels with fancy advertisements is influencing minds,” Khalid adds.

The ‘demonstration effect,’ which is the compulsion the poor feel working around the rich, also seems to be in play. It is hard to ignore that so many security-guards in posh bungalows of Defence have shot themselves.

The government has attempted to convince the public that inflation is beyond its control because the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has demanded the removal of subsidies and an increase, for example, in the power tariff by 89% in the past two years. People are told that the fall in dollar reserves is being caused by the rising price of petroleum products that are bought from the international market. And the public is expected to understand that the depreciation of the rupee, which makes the import of pulses and wheat expensive, is because the country’s exports are not enough to bring sufficient foreign currency into the country.

The PPP-led government seems to either lack the resolve or the wherewithal to address these issues. Take the power sector, for example. “While the tariff is constantly being jacked up, we don’t see any investment in the power infrastructure,” said Sayem Ali, an economist at a foreign bank. “This means the losses caused by old electricity transmission lines persist and power theft continues.” It should have jolted the government into some sort of action when the power sector’s debt crossed Rs 300 billion in a matter of only two years. “Yet, there seems to be no serious concern in government circles,” contends Ali.

Certainly, the gap between the government’s revenue and its expenditure is widening in all respects with each passing day. And now under pressure from the IMF, new taxes are being mulled over. There is talk of imposing duties on the import of petroleum products and taxing salaried people. All this will only result in further inflation.

For its part the government says it is doing everything in its power to help the poor. Farzana Raja, a PPP leader and the chairperson of the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), insists that giving direct cash grants to the country’s poorest three million people is no small feat. “Just one thousand rupees may not sound like a great deal,” she says. “But it means a lot for a family, which has a monthly income of Rs 5,000. That is a full 20% increase!”

The BISP maintains that around Rs 70 billion were distributed by it in the financial year 2009-10. However, this figure was reduced to Rs 50 billion this year as the government struggled to mobilise revenues. Raja says that it is imperative to shore up financial assistance now as the floods have made hundreds of thousands more vulnerable to the ongoing price hike. “The BISP will need at least Rs 150 billion for next year,” she states.

But time may be running out for desperate individuals. Psychiatrists say Asif’s case will not be the last. There are many more individuals on the edge.

A phone call from a money lender, a knock at the door by a bill collector, or a threat from a neighbour for recovery of a long-standing loan could well trigger the next suicide.

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