The costs of life

February 22,2019

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While our media continues to focus on a range of developments in the political and social fields in our country, the fact that nearly 50 percent of the Pakistani population is food insecure, according to the World Food Programme, does not normally enter public discourse. It is however an extremely important issue for now and for our future.

The inflation rate for 2019 has been placed by international monitoring agencies at an estimated 7.48 percent in the country. This is an increase from the figure of nearly four percent seen in 2018 and during the years before this. Food price inflation is believed to be considerably higher, steadily rising from 2010.

Each time food prices have soared, we have seen trouble. Much of this has gone mainly unnoticed. In early 2009 a mob of unemployed persons in Faisalabad broke into a bakery, took away the cash and consumed most of the food on the spot. Such scenes are obviously terrifying. Later the same year several people were killed, most of them women, during a stampede that took place while free rice was being distributed. Similar incidents have taken place before, but are generally reported as isolated tragedies rather than as part of a wider and far more dangerous problem.

The issue of food insecurity in Pakistan has grown over the last decade as yields from staple crops including wheat and rice decline while the population continues to increase. The reasons for the decline are linked to climate change, a lack of investment in agriculture and other factors which need to be more closely studied. The global food crisis of 2010 also affected Pakistan as inflation in food prices climbed to 30 percent and beyond. Even after the crisis was over, its effects in Pakistan appeared to persist with the cost of food remaining high.

We already know that at least 50 percent of Pakistani children suffer from under-nourishment and the physical conditions it brings with it. Wasting and stunting is also at an all-time high. In this situation, the rising prices for food put people at enormous risks. They become especially vulnerable to crisis-like situations within households when there is simply not enough food to feed families. The photograph published recently in a section of the media showing a security guard on duty in a major city dipping his ‘roti’ in water to eat it gives an indication of the gravity of the situation.

To understand the scale of the issue, we need to look not only at the economics of food but at the patterns of spending. We know that the poorest sections of society with incomes that fall below $2 a day spend a huge portion of their income on food, leaving behind less and less for education, health and other basic needs. Inflation and the high unemployment rate in the country also affect those with higher earnings. It has been suggested that too many households have also fallen under the grip of consumerism driven forward by advertising and social pressures, spending huge chunks of income on the latest television models, washing machines, mobile phones or other devices and less on buying quality food for families, including children. This is believed to be one of the reasons behind vitamin and mineral deficiencies affecting a very large portion of children in the country.

We direct too little attention towards the issue as a whole. But it is one that needs to be taken seriously. The growth rate for our population is currently the highest in South Asia and amongst the highest in the world. This of course makes the provision of food a harder task. There is also a lack of recognition of the state’s responsibilities in this regard. The primary duty of a state must be to provide its people with security and the means to attain the basic requirements of life. This is currently not happening in Pakistan and has not happened for decades.

Experts warn that current tensions with neighbouring countries could worsen the situation as India threatens to suspend all trade with Pakistan. Geo-political events have consequences for human beings. This is not recognised often enough or debated either at the official level or by informal groups and the media. The food insecurity problem, for example, expanded rapidly in the tribal areas during operations conducted there to root out militants. Internally Displaced Persons received too little help to sustain a normal supply of food and the problem has persisted even after IDPs have returned home or located themselves in different parts of the country.

Essentially, the question of why food insecurity rates are so high in the country needs to be studied. Last month we heard a great deal about the teenaged domestic worker, Uzma, who was killed in Lahore allegedly for taking a morsel of food off her employer’s plate. The vicious reaction of the employer and her daughter has been detailed and widely criticised. The outrage is genuine. However, we have heard little discourse on why Uzma felt the need to take a bite of food and why she was not receiving sufficient supplies of food on a regular basis. This is true also for many others who work in various sectors.

Though we do not like to face it, the fact is there are millions of people in our country who go to bed hungry each night. Most of us prefer to pretend they do not exist. The largest numbers may be found in the most impoverished provinces including Sindh and Balochistan. But they are also present in major cities and in other provinces, their desperation generally remaining invisible and hidden within the events of ordinary life. The media has steered away from bringing up such realities, even while other far more trivial pieces of news make headlines or are labelled ‘breaking news’.

At schools attended by less wealthy sections of society, teachers report there are children who come in each day without consuming any breakfast at all. Some of them say that their other meals are made up only of rice, eaten without any other nutrient, or a portion of bread. This should be a matter which rings alarm bells for all of us. Sadly this is not the case. While successive governments have promised programmes to introduce meals at schools, this has not happened on the ground. We hope that it will indeed be enacted in the very near future.

But to make this possible we need to overcome our resource constraints and try to understand why a country with sufficient capability to grow food is not able to feed its people. Putting food on the table of each and every citizen in the country should be a priority for all of us. It is true that many individuals and organisations engage in an enormous amount of philanthropic work, providing food to families and individuals. However, this is clearly insufficient. It is also not an enduring solution.

A more organised mechanism needs to be developed to ensure that each Pakistani has enough to eat and that awareness exists about the priority of making good food choices so that basic human growth is not affected and the country can build on the potential of its people. That potential is immense. Deprivation must not be allowed to hold it back.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.



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