Thursday, December 06, 2007

Villagers debunk claims about poverty reduction

from the Pakistan Dawn

By Masood Haider

NEW YORK, Villagers in Punjab have criticised President Pervez Musharraf’s government in interviews with the international news media, saying that prices of essential food items soared during his tenure.

“God knows who will be the leader after Musharraf,” a shop owner in a destitute village of 2,000 families was quoted as saying. “Each leader is worse than its predecessor.”

President Musharraf had challenged western journalists in an interview with the New York Times to journey to the villages of Pakistan and gauge public opinion.

President Musharraf had recommended them to take a trip to Punjab, the province that holds 55 per cent of the country’s population.

Westerners overestimate the popularity of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, he claimed, because they only met “human rights activists” in cities.

But the villagers said in interviews that Musharraf’s government had supported feudal landlords who rule the rural areas, where 5 per cent of the population controls 66 per cent of the land.

“Musharraf has announced he will end poverty,” Hussain, a villager, said. “It seems he will end the poor.”

The Times noted that “while city-dwellers complained that Musharraf’s dismissal of the Supreme Court, suspension of the Constitution and shutting of independent media were illegal, villagers complained that they had driven up prices.”

“Since the Nov 3 emergency, the price of wheat has risen by 25 per cent, from $7.50 for 40kg or 88 pounds, to $10,” villagers said.

Rice rose by 25 per cent, mustard oil by 75 per cent, from $1.33 a kilogram to $2.33. Even before the emergency, they said, prices had been rising over the last several years.

“Here, a poor person earns 100 rupees a day,” said Shahed Imran, a 22-year-old tea stall owner. “How can he support his family?”

The report pointed out that “Pakistani and international economists agreed that the inflation rate was 10 per cent last year…While the economy has boomed under Musharraf, with 6 per cent growth a year on average, nearly all growth has come in the urban service sector in areas such as banking, construction and stock trading. Farming has remained stagnant.”

Villagers said some aspects of rural life have improved under Musharraf. More families have televisions sets. New Chinese-made motorbikes speed down the village’s rutted, one-lane road. And new generators and concrete lining have been added to the local irrigation system, they said.

But, they said, the improvements had aided only wealthy landowners. Fifty per cent of village residents who were landless continue to struggle, they said.

Most villagers vote for whomever their landlords tell them to, they said.

Villagers said the crackdown on independent news stations had had no impact in rural areas since only the state-controlled television could be seen in the countryside.

Those who read the papers said Musharraf had declared the emergency to retain his hold on power, not to deter terrorism.

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