The changing shape of poverty

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It was 1993 when I had my first acquaintance with what I now regard as my home village. I wondered about putting “” around the word home and then decided no – because it is my home village just as much as Pakistan is now home. It is the village where my wife was born and where her family still live and it was overdue for a visit.

Back in the day it was a bustling place. There were hordes of kids under-foot, the church school was bursting at the seams there was a mix of young and old and nobody, at least not in the sense that I understood ‘rich’ was anything other than poor. They were poor in the material sense, having nothing much by way of consumer durables, a single lady health visitor – my sister-in-law – and no family owned a car for their private use.

There were televisions but they were far from ubiquitous, a few houses had their own boreholes for water and latrines were just beginning to make an appearance. And yet it was a rich life, full of laughter, storytelling, the unity of the family – all there and for years I failed to notice how it was all fading, withering away, and then I paid a visit last weekend.

It was a different place to that I first knew a generation ago, and a conversation with a friend in the last week confirmed the view that the changes I saw in my home village were happening right across south Punjab.

It was very quiet. Very very quiet. To be sure there were small children about but they were few. Houses that I had known as home to busy families were locked and in several cases falling down, unvisited and unrepaired and going back to the dust they came from. There is a shop on the edge of the village now that sells small quantities of petrol for motorbike owners of which there are now many, up from zero 24 years ago. It is something between a garage and a corner shop and augmenting the other small general store that has never grown.

The church school was still in business but with a much reduced roll as was the church itself. The priest and I exchanged pleasantries. Reports suggest that relations between Christian and Muslim remain tension free, with a continuing tradition of joint celebration of respective festivals. Apart from my own family there still seems to be no other that has a car for its sole use, though there are several in joint ownership.

As for the family home the core unit of two rooms is unchanged but there is now a kitchen, a bathroom, a covered verandah area and no buffalo. There was always a buffalo. And there is my sister-in-law, now the lead LHV for the area and accompanied by 24 other LHV’s and she had a story to tell.

Eighteen months ago a solar-powered potable water unit was installed in the village, reportedly one of 200 across south Punjab. The impact has been dramatic and very visible. Fewer infants are dying of gastro-intestinal illness in the first month of life. In the first full year of operation of the solar unit just one…ONE…neonate in the entire area it serves has died. The communal tankie that was the source of so much disease in adults as well as children now lies empty and dry, and has somewhat ironically had a new boundary wall courtesy of the government. And there really are fewer children, in part because families have moved to the cities for work but also because families are smaller, typically now two children and well spaced. There are fewer small farmers. Land has been sold off – it has in my own family – and there are fewer jobs as farming mechanises.

And are they ‘richer’? In some ways yes. The overall quality of life for those that remain – numbers have probably stabilised now – is undoubtedly better, especially the health of the community. But the village as a rural powerhouse is no more nor will it ever be again. There is a narrowing strata of dependent elderly and a broadening layer of jobless youth, some of whom were tending their pigeons by the dry tank, and the transition is almost complete. Still poor, but differently.

Between the village and the small nearby town is a monument to what might have been. An unfinished road and flyover that starts and finishes in thin air and was to have been the new crop-extraction route for farmers.

The funding that supported its construction has disappeared with the new government. It would have bridged the bottleneck where the old road crossed the railway line but it now hangs in space, a promise that will remain unfulfilled. The story of Pakistan in some ways, an unfinished flyover…but wait, as we left a young girl, perhaps twelve or thirteen waved at us. She was riding a motorbike with three others and their school bags behind her. Maybe all is not lost after all. Tootle-pip!