Another kind of change
By S. Akbar Zaidi, Dawn, April 14, 2008
WHILE Pakistan’s hesitant political transformation falters further, one has to note that developments over the last decade or so have given rise to numerous substantive changes, which have altered social relations and societal structures.
Always undergoing a process of change, many of these developments are affecting our social, economic and political relationships.
Perhaps the most important factor that, sadly, many Pakistani social scientists still do not comprehend is that Pakistan is neither a so-called feudal, agricultural, rural or even a traditional society or economy. Only those social scientists who write their papers on anecdotal evidence still talk of Pakistan as being feudal. Even a cursory examination of any kind of economic data suggests that this is not so. With the share of agriculture as part of the GDP falling drastically from 26 per cent in 2000 to 20 per cent in 2007, agriculture has lost its predominance in the economy.
The share of agricultural labour has also fallen, from more than half the total in 1990 to 43 per cent today. Land tenure relations and landholdings have also changed markedly. In terms of social ‘values’ and behaviour, while many analysts still call them ‘feudal’, perhaps ‘authoritarian, discriminatory and undemocratic’, may better describe the nature of social relations between people, values and behaviour. These are found in many highly developed countries as well. In order to understand social change and transformation, it is critical that we move beyond clichés which limit our ability to observe and understand.
This is particularly so with regard to clichés such as ‘Pakistan is an agrarian economy’, and the view, that ‘Pakistan is largely rural’. Raza Ali’s extraordinary research on the 1998 census, some of it published in these pages, showed clearly that Pakistan was an urban country with perhaps 50 to 55 per cent of the population living in settlements which by no stretch of the imagination could be called rural. A decade later, in the forthcoming census, most certainly the characteristics which help us define the sensibility and social and economic relations of exchange and production will reveal an even greater share of the urban.
Moreover, with the increase in communications of all sorts, and with so-called urban amenities, such as phones, electricity, roads and other social services easily accessible, if not available, to so-called rural dwellers, the arbitrary binaries between the urban and rural begin to fade. While a host of data can be shown to emphasise this point, the simple fact is that of the one million mobile phones added to the 81 million in service in Pakistan every month, the large majority are ‘rural’, or outside the spaces which are administratively defined as urban.
These structural shifts in economic and consumption patterns have given rise, finally, to the recognition of the emergence, substantial growth and consolidation of a Pakistani middle-class. The consumer boom that has taken place in Pakistan over the last decade or so would not have been possible without the existence of a large entity called the middle-class. Just how large such a class is, is difficult to capture or measure, and one hopes that some estimates of its size will emerge through research.
On account of easy credit, one can present data which support the claim that a consumerist middle-class defines the workings of the economy. For instance, the number of cars and of motorcycles doubled in Pakistan between the period 2001-07; mobile phones, which had a density of just five per cent of the population in 2004, within four years have reached the equivalent of 51 per cent of the Pakistani population. Moreover, despite growing regional and income disparities, per capita income has almost doubled since 2000.
While an economic middle-class exists, one can perhaps surmise that along with the huge growth in the media providing constant news and information, this class has also become more aware of its rights and perhaps even responsibilities. Perhaps it was these new, emergent and assertive groups that participated in and gave direction to the political and civil society movements of 2007.
However, one must add a word of caution here. If the economic transformations from the agrarian, rural and ‘feudal’ structures have given rise to these new groups or middle classes, it is important to state, that the political role of such classes need not be ‘progressive’, as is often incorrectly assumed and romanticised. The category of the middle-class has no particular moral or ideological mooring. This group or class can be as democratic and revolutionary as it can be fascistic.
Another factor that is affecting society and its relationships is the increasing visibility of women in public spaces, and not merely in parliament. While the largest number of women have been elected from the general seats in the Feb 18 elections, evidence from most urban centres suggests that women are more visible at higher tiers of education, in the media and the growing services sector. It is not just that girls predominate at liberal arts and humanity colleges, rough estimates suggest that, in the case of Karachi University and Government College University for example, girls dominate the campuses by a huge margin.
While many observers point out that on university and college campuses more girls are certainly visible, they immediately add that most wear some version of the hijab, suggesting a form of growing conservatism. These visual descriptions perhaps confirm the view of some that Pakistani society has become far more socially conservative; yet they obscure the liberating element in the lives of many of these girls who escape from their oppressive, traditional, patriarchal and familial bonds, if even for a few hours a day.
Clearly, just the fact that girls are being educated in growing numbers and that women are coming out to work is a revolutionary transformation which has multiple and diverse social, demographic and economic repercussions. Many would consider these as highly progressive.
These are just a mere thimbleful of the many changes that are transforming Pakistani society, its economy, its politics, and its social relations of exchange and production. There are many reasons for these changes, from excess capital liquidity, to globalisation, to the media boom, to women’s education and similar trends. What is required by those who claim to be scholars and social scientists, however, is to spend more time in assessing these changes and examining trends and data in order to inform public opinion in a much better way. A far more aware and informed readership is tired of clichés.