Pakistan: The wages of poverty

IF by putting his little children up for sale,
Shaukat Ali of Mian Channu, a Punjab town known
for well-off farmers, had tried to shake the
authority out of its slumber, and remind it of
its foremost duty to guarantee each citizen’s
right to life, he does not seem to have
succeeded. The matter has been treated as an
individual grievance and the protester promised
some relief, but there is no indication that the
scale of citizens’ plight caused by lack of
gainful employment has been addressed, or even

Amazingly, the government leaders appeared to
have been surprised by Shaukat Ali’s tale. Some
of his fellow citizens have now realised that his
audacity in offering his children for sale gave
the country a bad name. That a good number of
children are sold in Pakistan every year should
be common knowledge. Perhaps the prime minister,
who rushed to the aid of Shaukat Ali, is unaware
of the auction of girls in the NWFP. Is it
possible to describe the giving away of girls in
marriage under the custom of vulvar (or in
exchange for money under any other pretext) as
anything other than sale of girls?

Last year a Peshawar court expressed its disgust
and anger when it noted the sale of women by
their fathers and brothers under the guise of
marriage. The authorities are also perhaps aware
of considerable trafficking of women and their
sale in Pakistan cities, and not all of them are
from Bangladesh or Burma. Many a brothel-keeper
buys and sells women under the nose of custodians
of law and order and not infrequently in
connivance with them.

Likewise, bonded labourers, particularly those
working on farms and brick-kilns, sell not only
their labour but also their bodies and their
freedoms. A new evil is the sale of parts of
human body, mostly kidneys, that have been
recognised as an important source of earning
foreign exchange. One has seen hospitals that
advertise kidney-transplant services on the
internet and have added floor after floor to
their establishments. They are making huge gains
by finding poor Pakistani sellers of their
kidneys for sick people from India (women as well
as men) or the Middle East (usually richly-robed
men only).

The main cause of this large-scale trade in human
body or its organs is poverty made unmanageable
by lack of job opportunities. The number of
Pakistani citizens caught in this vicious trade
is legion. How many cheques for 100,000 rupees
each can be signed by the prime minister and how
many unemployed people can be offered and
satisfied with low-wage jobs? Extending relief in
individual cases is not the way to deal with so
widespread a phenomenon as poverty of the
unemployed hordes in Pakistan has become. From
the point of view of the people this is the
biggest and the most critical challenge Pakistan
faces today.

Sale of labour, sale of organs, sale of
children - these are not the only symptoms of the grinding
poverty in which millions of Pakistanis live as a
result of their failure to find adequably gainful
employment or any employment at all. The nexus
between poverty-unemployment and a rise in
suicide cases is now fairly widely recognised.
Many jobless young persons drift into a life of
crime. Poverty impels a large number of citizens
to abandon their children to quasi-religious
seminaries in the hope that they will get
something to eat and something to wear.

The poverty-stricken areas have also provided the
militant organisations with their main recruiting
grounds. Anybody who wishes to fight terror or
militancy without mounting a meaningful assault
on poverty does not know what he is talking about.

It will be grossly unfair to say that the
government has not seen the need to combat
poverty. Quite a few schemes have been launched
under the label of poverty alleviation, and the
government’s belief in the trickle-down effect of
development and the rich becoming richer has
never been shaken. But all these schemes and
ideas amount at best to ensuring that some of the
poor do not become poorer than they are. What
Pakistan urgently needs, however, is a strategy
to prevent the people from falling into the trap
of poverty in the first instance, and that can be
done only by recognising the right to work and
the right to social security of all those who are
permanently or temporarily unable to earn their

The basic issue then is the state’s determination
not to recognise the right to work. Pakistan came
into being at a time when social and economic
rights of the people had begun to be debated and
a bare 16 months after its birth the United
Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights, which duly emphasises the right to

The governments of the day could not ignore their
people’s right to work but they were unsure of
their capacity to concede it. They therefore
sought ways to avoid mandatory guarantees in this
regard. Thus we find the authors of the Indian
constitution, adopted in 1950, inserting the
following article in the chapter on the Directive
Principles of State Policy:

"41. Right to work, to education and to public
assistance in certain cases: The state shall,
within the limits of its economic capacity and
development, make effective provision for
securing g the right to work, to education and to
public assistance in cases of unemployment, old
age, sickness and disablement, and in other cases
of undeserved want."

The language of this article makes it clear that
the state does not deny its citizens’ right to
work and to public assistance of old, sick and
unemployed citizens but makes practical
realisation of these rights subject to
availability of resources.

The authors of Pakistan’s constitutions also were
not unaware of the right to work and the
obligation of the state to provide for the
unemployed poor. But they have been consistently
averse to using the expression ’right to work’
and have avoided making a strong state commitment
to helping the unemployed. The formula adopted in
the chapter on the Directive Principles of State
Policy in the 1956 constitution was:

"29. The State shall endeavour to:

(b) provide for all citizens, within the
available resources of the country, facilities
for work and adequate livelihood with reasonable
rest and leisure;

(c) Provide for all persons in the service of
Pakistan and private concerns social security by
means of social insurance or otherwise;

(d) provide basic necessities of life, such as
food, clothing, housing, education and medical
relief, for all citizens, irrespective of caste,
creed or race, as are permanently or temporarily
unable to earn their livelihood on account of
infirmity, sickness or unemployment."

After some editing of the foregoing article the
Ayub government laid down the following articles
in the chapter under the shortened title ’
Principles of Policy’;

"10. Opportunity to Gain Adequate Livelihood: All
citizens should have the opportunity to work and
earn an adequate livelihood, and also to enjoy
reasonable rest and leisure.

"11. Social Security: All persons in the service
of Pakistan or otherwise employed should be
provided with social security by means of
compulsory social insurance or otherwise.

"12. Provision of Basic Necessities: The basic
necessities of life, such as food, clothing,
housing, education and medical treatment should
be provided for citizens who, irrespective of
caste, creed or race, are permanently or
temporarily unable to earn their livelihood on
account of infirmity, disability, sickness or

The 1973 Constitution incorporated the scheme and
content of guarantees of the people’s social and
economic well-being contained in the 1956 and
1962 texts in Article 38 in the chapter on
Principles of Policy with two changes. Firstly
the ’should’ in the 1962 document and the ’State
shall endeavour to’ in the 1956 text were
discarded in favour of a firmer commitment by
declaring that “the State shall secure”/ and
“provide”. And, secondly, the principle of
rejecting discrimination on the basis of sex was
added to unacceptability of distinction on the
basis of caste, creed or race.

Governments of Pakistan, however, have rarely
paid due respect to the Principles of Policy.
Since the facilities or opportunities promised to
citizens and other persons in the Principles of
Policy are not justiciable, no law or act of
government can be challenged on the ground of its
being in conflict with these principles. Further,
each authority is competent to decide whether its
actions are in accord with the principles of

Thus, the president and the governors have
consistently ignored their duty to present every
year in the National Assembly / provincial
assemblies "a report on the observance and
implementation of the Principles of Policy."
Members of the National and provincial assemblies
also have made no attempt to provide for
discussion on such reports by the assembly

Government spokespersons often claim that
everything required to be done under the
Principles of Policy, and that is subject to
availability of resources, has been done and is
being done. Such assertions can easily be
challenged. The state is spending on its organs
and its establishment much more than it should
and is depriving the people of the employment
opportunities and social security to a greater
extent than anyone can fairly justify.

Besides, some of the most fundamental rights (to
work, education, health and social security) have
been kept out of the chapter on fundamental
rights for over 50 years. For how many more years
must the Pakistani people be fopped off with
principles of policy that are not implemented in
place of judicially enforceable rights?

A recognition of the right to work and extension
of social security net to all citizens and
persons alone will mark the beginning of a
genuine effort to stop sale of children and
provide relief to all the miserable Shaukats in

Since we are living in a period when
constitutional provisions and laws no longer
offer the disadvantaged and the marginalised any
comfort, the cynics are likely to refer to
non-implementation of the laws and guarantees
that are already there. A new constitutional
guarantee for the people’s right to work and
their right to freedom from poverty and want will
not immediately solve the problems of the poor
and the helpless, but it will at least offer them
a sound plank to fight on and take their fight
from the closed chambers of authority to the no
less closed councils of political parties.


* From Dawn, February 22, 2007. Circulated by South Asia Citizens Wire | February 23, 2007 | Dispatch No. 2364 - Year 9.

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