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A farmer at work in rural Sindh | White Star

How Sindh’s economy has been facing a downward spiral

Kaiser Bengali

Sindh has a dual identity. It has the metropolis of Karachi and then there is the rest of the province. This duality is the defining feature of the provincial economy even though the ‘rest of Sindh’ is further divided into several different economic zones. These include canal-irrigated areas along the Indus River, starting from Ghotki district in the north to Hyderabad division in the south, semi-arid hills of the Kirthar Range along the west bank of the Indus, a desert belt along Pakistan’s eastern border with India and a coastal belt in Thatta and Badin districts. 

The Economy of Modern Sindh presents a vast amount of data and facts about this diverse economy, covering a long period of time. The book does so from a number of different perspectives: demography, infrastructure, agriculture, industry, health, education and poverty alleviation among others. Its two initial chapters, Land and People and Administrative and Economic History, are particularly rich in detail. They are based on an extensive review of relevant academic literature and offer a historical overview spanning centuries — from the pre-British time to the present. 

The book’s subsequent chapters, too, offer a similarly detailed overview. The tables, charts and maps it provides as annexures are also immensely useful. But this is where its merits begin to fade. 

For one, the book does not offer a separate analysis about each of the various economic zones in the province, their peculiar features as well as their performance. It could have made a significant value addition to the abundant province-wide data it contains if it had simply rearranged those statistics in accordance with these zones. 

The second major omission in the book is a lack of analysis on various changes which have taken place in Sindh’s economy in recent decades. Karachi’s economy, for instance, has seen a rapid growth in the service sector but this growth has happened mostly at the expense of the city’s industrial sector which has experienced a decline of late. The province’s agricultural economy is also undergoing changes in terms of cropping patterns, with sugarcane reportedly replacing other crops at a rapid pace. An analysis of these changes would have made the book immensely useful for analysts and policymakers alike. 

The third glaring flaw of The Economy of Modern Sindh is its political bias. A positive view of military regimes appears in several parts of the book. Sample these statements from the chapter on poverty: “… 40 per cent of the country’s population was living below the assumed poverty line in 1963-64. This ratio had declined substantially to 17 per cent by 1987-88 …” the authors here implicitly credit General Zia-ul-Haq’s military dictatorship – which ended in 1988 – for much of the (assumed) decline. They omit to mention that there was already an almost 10 per cent decrease in poverty by 1978-79 — just after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s elected government was removed in a military coup. 

In a similar vein, the chapter on education declares: “During Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s regime, a massive campaign was launched to nationalize educational institutes … but the subsequent results proved to be a setback of educational quality and access …. Teachers became unionized … which preoccupied them at the expense of their professional duties ….dedication suffered.” No evidence is provided to back up any of these statements or any part thereof. 

The chapter on industry exhibits the same bias. “The third wave of industrial policy occurred during 1971-1973, under the tenure of President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and involved the nationalization of large-scale manufacturing … this policy was a big setback to the industrial growth of the country … Since the units were nationalized and controlled by government owned organizations, new projects were chosen on political [grounds] rather than on [the] basis of economic considerations, making the industrial sector inefficient … The fifth wave [in 1999-2008 saw] the implementation of better fiscal and monetary policies and structural reforms … [and] brought about stabilization of macroeconomic factors leading to a rise in GDP [Gross Domestic Product] growth rate from 5.1% in 2003-04 to 9.1% in 2004-05”. 

What happened after that single yearly jump remains curiously unexplained. In any case, no evidence is provided to support any of the statements mentioned above. As plenty of research, in fact, exists that contradicts them. 

The book makes an overwhelming use of data collected and published by various government departments. Most of the statistics and literature produced by several research institutions – such as Applied Economics Research Centre and Social Policy and Development Centre in Karachi, Sustainable Development Policy Institute and Pakistan Institute of Development Economics in Islamabad and Sindh Development Studies Centre in Jamshoro — has been, however, either accessed sparingly or entirely overlooked. Many highly insightful articles published in newspapers and magazines have similarly been ignored. 

The data used in The Economy of Modern Sindh could have been better organised too. In its current form, it looks as if it has been dumped while the text around it generally verbalises the numbers, offering only a cursory analysis. In many places, even a cursory analysis is absent. In other places, conversely, the authors have not supported their descriptions with any data or citations. Some references have been provided in notes but connecting them with the main text is not always automatic and easy. Most of the times, the connection has to be assumed. 

A flour mill in Karachi | Fahim Siddiqui, White Star

An instance from the chapter on population needs to be cited in detail to show this disconnect. “The trend of rapid urbanization, in recent years, has led to the emergence of many secondary peri-urban and satellite districts, such as [Naushehro] Feroze, Ghotki, Mirpurkhas, Umerkot, Jamshoro, Qambar Shahdadkot, Tando Muhammad Khan and Tando Allahyar … The Karachi-Hyderabad Corridor, encompassing districts of Thatta, Jamshoro, Tando Mohammad Khan, Tando Allahyar, is becoming an attractive center for manufacturing and employment,” the book points out but does not provide any evidence to prove this. The fact is that no such developments are visible in any of the areas mentioned above. 

Such unsubstantiated statements abound throughout The Economy of Modern Sindh. Pontifications without proof are aplenty and there is a surfeit of suggestions and recommendations — again without any evidence to back them up. 

The biggest disconnect in the book is between its main contents – spread over 11 chapters – and its introduction and conclusion which together lay out many of the issues facing Sindh’s economy and also offer solutions to them. The dominant narrative in the introduction and the conclusion is that there has been a long-term and continuing decay in education, and a stagnation and productivity decline in agriculture sector. Yet the authors sum up the chapter on poverty by stating: “There has been significant progress in the reduction of poverty incidence particularly since 2001-02.” They do not explain where this reduction has come from. 

There is a huge lack of literature on various dimensions of Sindh’s economy. The Economy of Modern Sindh fills some of this gap and, therefore, merits a detailed assessment but space constraints restrict this review to an analysis of only six of all its chapters. These concern population, education, health, agriculture, industry and poverty. 

The chapter on population covers records going as far back as 1931 and looks at all the demographic aspects of the province. But the contemporary narrative it offers not just fails to portray a true picture of the state of the province’s population, it is also not borne out by the data presented in the book. 

The education chapter reproduces a vast amount of official data, largely related to the quantitative aspects of the subject — such as the number of schools and teachers, enrolment statistics, budgetary allocations and presence or absence of infrastructure at schools. These figures tell no story though. The authors offer almost no analysis of the qualitative aspects of education sector. There is no reference in the book to any learning outcomes — such as those recorded in the well regarded Annual Status of Education Report. 

Same is the case with the chapter on health. It is full of statistics but contributes little to an understanding of the nature and the scale of medical problems people in the province face. They have been suffering for several decades from eye ailments, kidney diseases and hepatitis — all having assumed epidemic proportions of late. The book, however, does not even mention any of these illnesses let alone conduct a probe into their impact on the economic resources of Sindh. 

The chapter covering agriculture – the backbone of Sindh’s economy – lays out an excellent snapshot of the sector’s overall current situation — as do most other sections. The authors point out how agriculture in the province is beset by a number of serious problems — land tenure being one of the most intractable of them. The problem with this description is that it is based exclusively on official data. The authors have made no effort to address the widespread concerns about the accuracy of this data. Again, detailed data has been given about, say, crop areas and per acre yields but this is accompanied by almost no commentary. 

The chapter that covers the manufacturing sector – concentrated almost exclusively in Karachi – reproduces a lot of data related to industrial production and other aspects connected to it but, just like elsewhere in the book, the authors have not probed these numbers from an analytical perspective. They have presented a lot of quantitative data about each industry but this has not been supplemented by any hitherto unknown analytical insights. 

A macro-level assessment of the much talked about changes in both agriculture and manufacturing is also missing from the book. The need for value addition in agricultural produce and the development of industry outside Karachi, both being important for Sindh’s overall economic development, do not even appear on the book’s radar. 

The contents of the chapter on poverty seem to be self-contradictory. The conclusions it proffers run counter to the data presented in it. The authors go to a great length to decry, correctly, that a time-series comparison of the incidence of poverty is problematic because of “major methodological and conceptual weaknesses, including choices of poverty lines, conversion from calories into values, changing definitions, varying coverage in surveys, and different assumptions”. But then they conclude, rather definitively, that poverty declined during 1960s, 1980s and 2000s — the three decades when the military ruled the country.

The book’s overall structure makes such deficiencies even more obvious. The Economy of Modern Sindh fails to make a whole out of its individual chapters. For example, there exists a strong connection between water availability and cropping pattern but the book does not even mention this link. It, therefore, loses out on the richness that could have been obtained from highlighting the interactions between different sectors of the provincial economy.


The writer is an economist.


This article was published in the Herald’s June 2019 issue.

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