Rumblings to come by Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

IT never ceases to surprise just how quickly one breaking news cycle gives way to any other in Pakistan. Only some weeks ago it felt like the polemic over the effectiveness of lockdowns in containing the spread of the coronavirus would go on forever, along with the prime minister’s repeated exhortations about protecting ‘the poor’.

That feels like light years ago now.

In its place, we have reverted to familiar themes: how long will the sitting government survive? Is an in-house change on the cards? Various high-profile cases being taken up by different superior courts suggest any number of contradictions within the corridors of power. Meanwhile, the fate of ‘the poor’ is unsurprisingly conflated with money-whitening schemes for construction, all while daily disclosures about gross violations of basic freedoms — against women, girls and transpersons; those without voice because of their class, caste and religion; and critical journalists, intellectuals and political workers who speak truth to power — leave one gasping for air.

In the midst of this, the fallout from the pandemic continues to unfold. While sketchy official figures suggesting that the spread of the virus has been curbed might be cause for cautious optimism, what about the economic downturn that is yet to fully rear its head?

Global financial forecasters are predicting an increase in civil strife due to economic hardship in many states over the next few months, a list that includes Pakistan. The facts are well known: we are amongst the world’s most populated countries with a high proportion of young people already facing limited opportunities for education and gainful employment. The pandemic has turned what was a slow-burning fuse into a volcano waiting to erupt.

Our governing elite’s plans do not extend beyond profiteering.

The warning signs have been clear since lockdown started. The hybrid regime has done nothing to respond to thousands of young students across the country, and particularly those from ethnic peripheries like the former Fata districts, Gilgit-Baltistan, Balochistan and Sindh, that have been crying hoarse for months about poor or non-existent internet connections that render participation in online classes a pipe dream.

University-going youth are but the tip of the iceberg. Remember that 65 per cent of the population is below the age of 30, which even by conservative estimates equates to a whopping 140 million young people. The outlook is bleak no matter where one looks: agriculture is beset by the locust invasion; manufacturing is in terminal decline, factories are firing workers daily; the service sector, which generates the most jobs, much of it in the form of self-employment, has been the worst hit by lockdown.

The so-called gig or platform economy never offered an outlet for most Pakistani you­th at the best of times; it is now in freefall for the small segment whose livelihoods were co­n­nected to it due to a dramatic decline in agg­regate demand, not to mention arbitrary decisions like banning Bigo and the impending shutdown of sites such as YouTube and TikTok.

Experts fear for ‘emerging markets’, but the working mass of people are simply living down existing forms of oppression. It is on record, for instance, that domestic and other forms of patriarchal violence have increased under lockdown and due to the economic fallout of the pandemic more generally. Meanwhile, the ‘incentives’ for construction and other big business to lead economic ‘recovery’ will result in yet more dispossession of working people and ecological devastation for future generations to bear given the financialised logic of ‘development’.

As for political intrigue and repression, the diabolical performance of the hybrid regime notwithstanding, both the cynical games of musical chairs within the highest echelons of the militarised state, and the victimisation of dissidents, is old news. The 12-hour ordeal of journalist Matiullah Jan this week thankfully ended with his release due to an almighty outcry, but let us not forget that this is an epidemic with a long history borne primarily by young people from the ethnic peripheries.

If and when, as indicators suggest, economic downturn will really start to rear its head, disaffection amongst our young population will grow, not only from the peripheries but in the Punjab heartland itself. There is no evidence that either the sitting government or the establishment that rules the roost has any plan to cope with what is to come. Our governing elite’s plans do not extend beyond profiteering, protection of their own cliques, and shutting down dissent in whatever form it comes.

What transpires in the medium run is impossible to predict, but demographic and economic pressures have never before combined in this way to generate the potential for rupture within mainstream Pakistan. If there is anyone in power with any foresight, this organic crisis with no precedent will be consuming their thoughts. Those resisting power are already consumed.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2020

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