Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Hunza: another view


With reportedly the highest GDP per capita and a literacy rate of above 80pc, the Hunza valley, originally famous for its natural beauty and high life expectancy rates, has been dubbed as a successful model of development within Pakistan and abroad.

The models of poverty alleviation pursued by a number of non-profits were soon replicated in all Pakistani provinces and even in neighbouring countries.

Whether Hunza still remains a successful model of development in the developing world is debatable. Much has changed in the economics of poverty and development, and the combination of high income and high literacy rate might not have translated to societal improvement.

Contemporary economics of human development puts more weight on the quality of living standards, access to health and education, freedom of choice, ability to participate in local decision-making etc. Deprivation in these areas may lead to multidimensional poverty. Based on Mahbabul Haq’s human development foundations, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen introduced this path-breaking concept of multidimensional poverty.

This seems applicable to Hunza where conventional economics failed to capture the multidimensional aspects of well-being. Take health. Despite being the richest region in terms of per capita income, almost all Hunza villages are without basic health facilities. Hospitals in Aliabad and Karimabad, the two major towns, are hardly equipped to handle complicated pregnancies, major accidents or serious illnesses.

Likewise, Gojal, the upper part of Hunza, which remains cut off from the rest of the region due to the formation of the Attabad lake, is reported to have not even a single medical practitioner. Picture a situation where you get sick and are stuck in Gojal because of a frozen lake; even though you have enough money to pay the doctor, no medical service is available.

Ironically, life expectancy, a major development indicator in yesteryear Hunza, has plummeted, thanks to increasing diseases like cancer and other illnesses. The alkaline water, once the secret of longevity in Hunza, now seems to be the reason for disease, along with other factors. There have been reports that tap water is contaminated in the few villages lucky enough to have a drinking water supply.

Likewise, many primary school-going children in remote villages within Hunza have no access to quality education; their parents of course can sell their potatoes and cherries to pay for their children’s tuition fee but in some cases there’s no school within five kilometres of their residence. How parents manage to send their offspring to school is another story.

The list of dirty laundry to be aired is too long. It ranges from the lack of proper sanitation facilities and of supply systems for drinking water to mounting income disparity, the absence of electricity and unprecedented corruption that has been inflicted on Hunza by imported development models. The failure of high per capita income and a high literacy rate to manifest themselves in societal development arises for two reasons: firstly, while the Western world was incorporating this aspect in its development models and public policies, the models that were executed here were more skewed corporate models that accentuated individualism rather than collectivism.

While Professor Elinor Ostrom was winning the Nobel Prize for encapsulating friendship, fairness, trust, and reciprocity as reasons for the enduring success of common resource pools in rural societies, the latter were relying on outdated Western development models of competition that neglected overall societal improvement.

Community decision-making is an integral part of politics says renowned political scientist Deborah Stone. Contrary to that, the parochial political culture in Hunza is an outcome of the desire of some to emerge as rapid game-changers rather than to facilitate the change stemming from within the society itself.

Secondly, the government has given short shrift to the entire development episode in Hunza, and shied away from its responsibility of providing basic civic amenities. More astonishing is the apathetic behaviour of the masses towards societal development as no noticeable voice has been raised for civic rights in the last many decades.

The bottom line is that, the flawed notion of development in Hunza undertaken by non-profits eventually gained currency among the masses and was accepted and pushed by governments to save their own funds.

The masses were thus mesmerised by an illusionary development metaphor and many believe they were in fact ‘developed’. For that reason, they might not demand their civic rights that are crucial to any society.

Until the public remains apathetic, neither the government nor the non-profits can have any reason to work for the genuine societal development of Hunza. ‘Development’ in Hunza, however, remains a success story for classical economists — the adherents of capitalism.

The writer is pursuing a doctoral degree on Gilgit-Baltistan.
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