It is budget season. But the budget that will garner all the attention is, frankly, much ado about nothing. We already know where most of our expenditures go — into defence and debt servicing — just as we know that our revenue base relies disproportionately on regressive taxes while the big fish run amok.
The government will tell us that it is doing all it can to provide relief within existing fiscal constraints and IMF conditionalities. The opposition will tell us that the present rulers have sold their soul to the devil and are concerned only with maintaining their own privileges.
So rather than go over the same old boring ground, here are four anecdotal budgets that capture the lived reality of our highly class-divided society.
Rich propertied classes: This is a highly diverse segment that makes a killing through political and economic rents as well as profit from assorted forms of accumulation. Finance Minister Miftah Ismail recently made a terrible joke about how the withdrawal of the petrol subsidy will hurt those with the biggest vehicles. He’s wrong. The biggest fish spend a very small amount of their income on petrol, food and other basic needs.
People are being sacrificed at the altar of ‘world class cities’.
Most of the propertied classes’ disposable income is spent on conspicuous consumption, including expensive imported goods and services. Interesting, isn’t it, that the IMF was displeased about the proposal to ban the import of at least some of the commodities that tickle the fancies of the rich and powerful?
The ‘middle class’: I put inverted commas around middle class because this category is highly nebulous. Large numbers of people who might identify as ‘middle class’ are always just one major economic shock away from being thrust down the social ladder. In the face of unprecedented inflation, the salaried segments of this class are struggling to maintain their household consumption levels, whilst also funding their children’s education and meeting housing mortgage and car lease payments.
Those segments of the middling strata that are reliant on agriculture, trade, commerce and industry may be doing better or worse depending on the health of their particular sub-sector. Even if their margins have decreased, they pass on most of the burden of petrol, electricity and other price increases to their customer base.
The working class: This is also a highly diverse segment including but not limited to low-level public and private sector employees, domestic servants, small-scale vendors, and small/landless farmers. They are struggling badly because they spend the largest amount of their income on food, petrol and other basic amenities. Theirs is a daily struggle to navigate state excess and ruthless markets, and greater economic vulnerability draws them tighter into webs of patronage dominated by the rich and powerful.
Tightening austerity measures, exemplified most of all by consistently high inflation, forces many working-class households to at least temporarily give up on their dreams of climbing the social ladder.
Surplus populations: Yes, there is a large and evergrowing segment below even the working class. It is literally being dispossessed of the means of life as the rich propertied classes, with state functionaries in the lead, seek profit in the nooks and crannies of society, ‘investments’ that all good economists and ‘rational’ citizens more generally deem necessary for growth.
These are the populations residing largely but not exclusively in the ethnic peripheries for whom lands, water bodies and forests represented the source of livelihood. They are now being sacrificed at the altar of ‘world class cities’ and exotic tourist resorts. Needless to say, the current economic squeeze simply exacerbates their already dire situation. Most survive by engaging themselves and their children in various forms of daily wage work; still, others smuggle themselves into other countries (like the Gulf and increasingly southern Europe) to work for slave wages. Theirs is a daily budget that is determined less by their needs and more by the whims of that particular day.
So how meaningful is the formal budget exercise? Major power brokers are currently positioning themselves only vis-à-vis the next general election in which they hope to be considered the least worst option, while the selectors want only to deflect heat onto one or other political contender.
Meanwhile, the majority of this country’s people, including many who aspire to be in the ‘middle class’ category, are struggling to make ends meet. Rather than holding international creditors and our rich propertied classes — including khaki profiteers — to account, the struggles of ordinary people are feeding ever more reactionary politics like that of Imran Khan. It is as vicious a cycle as can be, and it will only be broken when the working class, surplus populations and youthful ‘middle class’ subjects coalesce around a new political project. One in which government budgets actually cater to people’s needs and the biggest fish are cut down to size.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.