Monday October 18, 2021

Painful incompetence

September 18, 2021

LAHORE: In the absence of government writ, the ever-increasing rates of edibles have made the poor immune to increasing petroleum rates or declining rupee value.

In agricultural economies like Pakistan, food prices mainly increase because of government incompetence that fails to reign in middlemen that dictate the retail prices. As far as the poor are concerned, their main issue is to ensure food for the family.

From their experience, the heads of poor families know that hunger is a physically unpleasant experience which is accompanied by headaches, pain, dizziness, loss of energy and an inability to concentrate.

Two years back, most poor were able to address the pain caused by hunger by including in their diets a larger share of their food budget on staples like rice and wheat, which were cheap sources of calories. Though these staple foods lacked many nutrients, the immediate pain of hunger was addressed. The abnormal increase in the prices of these staple foods and sugar (that is also rich in calories) has devastated most of the poor families.

Earlier, the prices of other food items like vegetables and chicken meats fluctuated according to demand and supply, but now the prices remain stubbornly high throughout the year.

This is testing the budgets of lower middle class families that shudder even at the thought of enjoying seasonal vegetables or chicken meat.

The poor that constitute 30-40 percent of the population always remain under-nourished which is evident from the similar or even higher percentage of stunted children in our society. Now the lower middle class is slowly joining the poor as far as under nourishment is concerned.

Once people are no longer hungry, they do not need to spend their incremental cash on the cheapest source of calories, but can base their choices on things like variety and taste. Therefore, if someone is consuming a significantly higher share of calories from staple foods, than he/she is likely to be hungry.

Poor faced financial constraints in the past as well, but they managed to find some solutions. Many families stopped cooking proper meals and resorted to consuming bread with a cup of tea thrice a day. They softened the wheat bread with edible oil and gulped it down with tea.

All they had to arrange was edible oil, tea, wheat flour, milk and sugar. The diet devoid of essential nutrients was palatable even for the children.

The concept of curry, meat, vegetable or pulses was alien to most poor families. Now even this recipe that the poor could afford has gone out of their reach. Wheat rates have doubled, edible oil is over 100 percent dearer, milk rates have sharply increased, and sugar prices have skyrocketed.

Tea is an imported item and its rates continue to rise with decline in rupee value. Most poor families now live in semi-starved mode.

The increase in petroleum rates has also increased the commuting expenses of the labourers. Most now walk a large distance on foot and take the public transport from the point where the fare is affordable for them.

This consumes most of their energy and time, but they have no choice. For instance, if they have to reach their office or workplace by changing two buses, they walk the first or the last phase of their journey to save some fare.

For most of the rich people, hunger is a temporary inconvenience, easily solved by popping out to the shops when outside or raiding their fridges when at home. They have no idea of the chronic hunger that is part of everyday life for many people in poorer places.

Less poverty does not always mean better-nourished people in current day social set up. Studies suggest that poor families continue to remain under-nourished even when their incomes increase. They consume the additional income on buying things like electric fans, refrigerators or television to improve the quality of their family’s life. These gadgets increase their power bills forcing them to continue with poor diet plans.

Poverty assessments are flawed, and part of the problem is in the way governments and international agencies count the hungry. This typically involves fixing a calorie threshold of certain calories consumed per day as a common benchmark—and then count how many people report eating food that gives them fewer calories than this number.

Concentrating on calories ignores the important role of micro nutrients such as minerals and vitamins. Government should fortify the staple foods with micronutrients and minerals to ensure better health of the poor.