In tandem with sluggish economic growth, Pakistan's population has grown rapidly. Key societal needs such as literacy and health care are not being properly met. The combined effect of these shortcomings is clearly reflected in growing anger on the streets of Pakistan (Picture used for illustrative purpose only) Image Credit: Reuters

The riots which erupted on the outskirts of Pakistan's capital city of Islamabad on Friday were neither surprising nor without reason. In the largely low-income neighbourhood of Barah Kahu, students who mostly come from impoverished homes reacted angrily to the decision by the city's administration to accept an increase in local bus fares.

Within hours of the first demonstration, the situation deteriorated as stone-pelting protesters clashed with riot police, paralysing traffic on the main road leading from the city to its airport.

Such riots are hardly unprecedented in a country where almost one-third of the population lives below the poverty line.

And yet, they should serve as a long overdue wake-up call for Pakistan's elite, long used to a life of complacency because there have been few recent public protests on popular economic issues.

Friday's riots underline the reality of Pakistan, whose citizens live on a knife edge. Many Pakistanis are appalled and disgusted by the rapidly widening gap between the rich and the poor.

The riots should also be an eye-opener for the United States, especially as Washington prepares to host a so-called strategic dialogue this week. Pakistan's foreign minister, finance minister and army chief of staff will sit across the table from a high-ranking US delegation led by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

Ahead of the Washington event, Pakistan's leaders have sounded a note of desperation regarding their economy. In recent days, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani used the phrase "war economy" as he pushed for an acceleration of international support for conflict-stricken Pakistan.

Gilani is only partly right. Pakistan is indeed locked in a conflict which can be classified as a war. But it is also a country with few demonstrable commitments to genuine reform of the kind that would begin to tackle its ever-increasing turmoil.

For Washington, seeking Pakistan's long-term support to stabilise conditions in Afghanistan is essential. The US has generously given econ-omic and military aid to Pakistan at various stages of its history, at times making Islamabad a leading recipient of such financial assistance.

But Pakistan has seldom before been similarly pressed to take charge of its economic destiny, though that holds the key to its stability and future prosperity. There is ample evidence of Pakistan's failure to take care of its population.

In tandem with sluggish economic growth, Pakistan's population has grown rapidly. Key societal needs such as literacy and health care are not being properly met. The combined effect of these shortcomings is clearly reflected in growing anger on the streets of Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the politically powerful army that has ruled Pakistan for more than half its existence as an independent state has taken pride in its ability to enforce tough discipline. But that discipline only fell by the wayside every time an era of military rule came to an end and the generals found their reputations further tarnished.

There is much food for thought in Pakistan's history, but few immediate answers as to how to radically improve the country's future.

Indeed, there are no easy solutions to the complex challenges facing Pakistan. It would be impossible for the United States to deny assistance to Pakistan while it seeks Islamabad's support to stabilise Afghanistan. However, it is possible for the US to press Islamabad to use future assistance in a way that benefits those hit hardest by years of neglect. A series of options are open to Washington, ranging from closer scrutiny of money delivered to projects, to building new partnerships with local communities. In this way, the US may help to improve the outlook for Pakistan's most vulnerable people.

What is clear is that inaction or half-baked measures of the kind seen in the past are no longer an option. Pakistan's most needy people are becoming increasingly angry and restless. The riots on Friday must be heeded as a warning by anyone with an interest in Pakistan, wherever they may be.

 

Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.