Seven-year-old Samiullah solves simple arithmetic progressions in his head and reads texts that are recommended for twelve-year-old children. In my last lesson with him, we measured the radius and circumference of circles and discovered pi.
He has learnt poems and songs on Galileo, Aryabhata, Alberuni and the earth’s circumference. His report cards are full of As and his hopes are high as the date trees that rise tall and strong in the imposing estates next to his impoverished village Mandowala in Muzaffargarh district. His growth statistics – height and weight – are okay.
Samiullah is an outlier. Statistics tell us that his peers are mostly undernourished. Their mental and physical growth is scarred, their economic prospects grim. If they survive into adulthood, without completing primary school, they will, like their parents, be unemployed and impoverished.
Why? Because even as the economy grows by five percent, it benefits the rich, exponentially increasing the gap between the haves and the have-nots. The haves clog the streets and malls of Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Rawalpindi and Jhelum. A report titled ‘Multidimensional Poverty in Pakistan 2016’ reveals that only between three and nine percent people are poor. But villages are overwhelmingly poor: 23 rural districts have a staggering 75 percent poor people. Another 28 districts have more than 60 percent poor people. During 2013-15, the percentage of poor people increased in 47 districts, including Muzaffargarh, where 65 percent of people languish in near-feudal conditions.
The city-village divide is more vexing if you are about Samiullah’s age. The Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2014 states that in Muzaffargarh district 113 children in 1,000 die before reaching the age of five or twice as many as in the cities. At least 68 percent children under the age of five suffer from stunted growth (because they are perennially hungry). Of these, 21 percent are severely stunted, whereas they are less than half that number in the cities. At 18 percent, the proportion of under-weight children in Muzaffargarh exceeds the international emergency threshold and needs immediate redress.
Stunting is a world health priority and WHO has set a global target to reduce it by 40 percent between 2010 and 2025. But this is not the case in Muzaffargarh. Our children continue to quietly suffer and so does our future. Under-nutrition is a silent emergency that demands urgent action.
When children are below the average height, it reflects under-nutrition and frequent illness. In Muzaffargarh, 20 percent children have fever and 17 percent have diarrhoea. It is a symptom of poverty and deprivation – a horrific reflection of an uncaring society.
Poverty, said Mahatma Gandhi, is the worst kind of violence. Poverty is heaped with abundance on Samiullah and his peers. If you look at them closely, the nature and intensity of the situation is palpable. Around 433 out of 847 children whom we surveyed in three Zoya Science Schools in Thatta Gurmani union council of Kot Addu tehsil and 89 children are under-weight. Around 68 children are both below the average height and under-weight and face three times more of a risk of dying as compared with normal children.
If we look closer, we see that the afflicted children live mostly in Moza Thatta Gurmani Gharbi, far from the main Kot Addu-Muzaffargarh Road. This compels their parents to work in the neighbouring estates for an average of only Rs7,400 every month – less than half the minimum wage. Young women earn Rs 100 every day for picking cotton and cutting sugarcane. They can not read, add, subtract and even struggle to tell the time.
The Agriculture Census 2010 reveals that in Muzaffargarh district 89 rich landlords own, on average, over 400 acres of land each. They earn at least Rs200 crore annually even if they cultivate half their land. Another 813 farmers earn over Rs400 crore. Together 902 rich farmers own as much land as 172 poor farmers. A 20-percent tax on their potential income will provide Rs 190 crore which can be used to eradicate undernourishment. Horrific deprivation and exploitation coexist with wealth, prompting Seraiki poet Shakir Shujaabadi to remark: “(Here) the dogs (of the rich) drink milk while children die of hunger”.
So what is the solution? Experts say that there is greater emphasis on nutrition and the formulation of various national and provincial nutrition-focused strategies in Pakistan. Along with India and Afghanistan, who face similar emergencies, we can address our people’s real problems and spend at least one percent of our GDPs on nutritional programmes – as Sri Lanka did in the 1980s to deal with under-nutrition.
But for villagers, the optimism of experts and peaceniks might as well be on the moon. In 2013, thousands of them near Samiullah’s home voted to uproot poverty. Next year, they will do the same because they know that their deprivation stems from horribly skewed land distribution, low income, the misallocation of public money and bad governance. Once these issues are addressed – perhaps only by a government that represents the needs of poor workers and peasants – the hopes of Samiullah, and countless other children just like him, will be realised.