The inspiration for this post came from the responses to tech Lahore Post Modern Pakistan post. Not the post but the cynics who turned out in large numbers to remind us how bad things are today and how much worse they have become over the years. I am obviously not as educated or as well informed as some of these distinguished cynics but here is my limited take on some of these endless myths that just refuse to die.
Middle class, income distribution and rising wealth disparity
My father sold life insurance policies for a living. He started work at the age of 16, moved into selling insurance when he turned twenty and as far as I know he still sells insurance today, fifty years later.
I went to a government owned Parsi school on Abdullah Haroon Road where the monthly fees was just under 90 rupees in the late eighties; my sisters went to similar government owned convent and Parsi schools in Karachi. We were never really hard up but at the same time if I look back, I know now that I came from a middle class background. Hints and memories where you cross the line between being a child and being aware of who you are, of what you want and can’t get, of where you can and cannot go. It was a happy childhood, still, and I wouldn’t change those years or those experience because they defined who I am today.
If there are still any doubts about my middle class roots I started work at the age of 14. I rode G3 to Regal Chowk and I earned 700 rupees a month for working 3 months as a hand around the office answering phones, filing papers and being a pesky 14 year old (not at my father’s office). When not working full time, I typed my father’s and his friends insurance proposals and union demands for negotiations for a 100 rupees, wrote monthly articles that actually got published for another five hundred a piece. Part of my motivation for staying with the sport of track and field (800 meters and the mile) was that position of 2,500 rupees a month for being a middle distance runner as part of Pakistan Railways national track and field team.
Back from my child hood days I have about a 100 friends who came from similar middle class backgrounds. Some families had cars, some didn’t; some owned homes, some rented. But we all knew who we were. Our parents didn’t have enough money to buy us everything we wanted, but they had the good sense of ensuring that we all picked up a decent education. We were neither rich nor poor but had been raised well enough to be happy with what we did have. We bought our books at Urdu Bazaar, were looked after by Dr. Mujtaba on Burns road (not Mideast or AKU), when we fell ill, and bought our medicine at Kausar medicos right next doors.
Fast forward 20 years and this middle class group is no longer middle class. As we grew up and leveraged our education and the changing dynamics of the national economy we have all done well. In homes that had no cars, there are now three. Those of us who lived as a family of five in an 800 square feet apartment now rent or own 3000 square footage bungalows. From dubious neighborhoods where we still feel safe, we have moved to gated compounds. While we went to school where the 90 rupee a month fee was a burden for our families, our children go to institutions that would certainly be considered elitist by any definition of that word. Our vacations were dreams of visits to our grandfather house in Bombay or an aunt in Malir Cantt; our children are citizens of the world. Look around yourself and just ask, “Did we have this as a child when we grew up?”
So exactly where did this wealth come from? Did all of these well balanced middle class kids suddenly found themselves in possession of mints that print money? Or were we direct recipients and beneficiaries of the much publicized western aid? In case you are wondering my father earned an honest living and so did the others that I speak about.
And it’s not just the middle class. The gardener’s son that I grew up with today runs a self financed business in southern (rural) Punjab, has a computer in the house and sends his three children to private schools. For every hundred middle class individuals I quote above, I can quote about 20 who came from a below sustenance life style when I knew them as a child. In two decades they have crossed the class threshold to become the new lower middle class of Pakistan.
Income, wealth levels and standard of living in this country have risen dramatically over the last two decades for the middle and lower income groups. The transformation has come through education and much larger share for the private sector in the economy. While our fathers built everything with their own hands, we have had the opportunity to leverage their work. It’s not a myth or hand waving with numbers. Things have actually gotten better, not worse.
Please get off your pedestal, stop bullshitting yourself and us and acknowledge the fact.
(Yes the economy sucks right now and some of us may not have as bright and rosy prospects as we had dreamed about. But the fact remains that despite the downturn, compared to where we were and where we are, there is a world of difference)