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Tuesday October 26, 2021

The right to eat

October 14, 2021

The writer is a freelance columnist and formernewspaper editor.

Pakistan and its leaders have spoken extensively about the need for human rights in Afghanistan and in other countries, both in the region and beyond it. This is of course perfectly valid in terms of sentiment and in terms of concern for the people of the globe. However, should the government, led by the PTI, not also be thinking about people at home?

At present we have a situation where a third of the people live below the poverty line. Fifty percent of children are stunted and food inflation stands at an astounding 15 percent. People are literally unable to buy the very basics of life including atta, sugar, lentils, vegetables and the supplies that normally sustain low income and even middle-income families. At present, even the salaried class is seeking some way to make the ends meet and pay the hugely inflated electricity bills that are being sent out each month as well as bear the burden of rising fuel costs and petrol that goes into motorcycles, rickshaws, cars and the rise of which further pushes forward inflation.

Till now, the PTI government has consistently blamed previous governments for this economic failure and for the inflation, saying they had borrowed far too much money from outside the country. The government has, however, borrowed more in its three years in power than the PPP government in five years or the PML-N government also in five years. It still has nearly two years to go before its term comes to an end. This is something Prime Minister Imran Khan and his advisory team need to face. There is no point in the prime minister insisting that things are taking a turn for the better and that the coming months will be good for the people.

The people had been asked to wait and show patience without panicking at the beginning of the PTI tenure. They have waited long enough. They have also tried their best not to panic, but panic is a very real phenomenon when there is not enough food to bring home and parents need to consider whether they can still afford to send children to school. We are facing a full-fledged crisis and rather than coming up with fabrications of various kinds, it would be far better for the people, for the nation and for the government if the PTI leadership simply faced up to it and admitted there was a problem which needed to be solved together.

A federal minister suggesting that people eat less and consume fewer rotis or fewer grains of sugar is not helpful. At any rate, people from the lower tiers of society do not have that food to eat and they certainly do not have food to save or to eat any less. If they did so, they would probably die. Indeed, deaths due to malnutrition, notably among children and also women, are a reality in Pakistan, just as they are in Sub Saharan Africa. This is despite the fact that, unlike the countries of Africa, Pakistan has resources to grow sufficient food to feed its people. And what it needs is to ensure more equitable division and an end to the monopolies and cartels which control food and its distribution. It also needs an economic policy that will force down inflation so that ordinary people can live normal lives, rather than telling them that geysers are a luxury and that they should perhaps collect wood to prepare for a winter ahead during which gas is unlikely to be available.

The LNG crisis and the reasons for it have already been discussed extensively by experts on various news channels. Perhaps the government and the prime minister need to listen in and take heed from these warnings. We are a nation in crisis. Inflation, especially of food items, but also other commodities required for life, has almost never been as high as is the case today. In three years, there have been four finance ministers, and we still do not know if the current Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin will be able to stay in power long enough to amend the current economic policy given the allegations made against him and his family in the Pandora Papers.

But most important of all is the need not to lie. People who are lied to constantly and unrealistically by ministers simply become disrespectful of the government and unwilling to listen to it, even when it is telling the truth. The story of ‘Peter and the Wolf’ is, after all, well known to most of us. The government must remember that people know the truth and even those who had once fervently supported the PTI government are in some cases backing away or admitting that there has been an enormous degree of incompetence, literally leaving people across the country hungry.

We talk extensively of national security and protecting national interests. These are the reasons quoted for cracking down on the media and arresting people who are picked up, in some cases from their homes. But there can be no national security unless people are taken care of, and are confident that they can purchase enough to feed their households and send children to school with enough food in their stomachs to manage through the day.

The situation then is a desperate one. Rather than making false promises of a sudden change for the better, people need to be informed about what is happening and, most important of all, there needs to be a change in policy so that the current crisis can be overcome. It is of course difficult, indeed almost impossible, to change policy when one finance minister after the other is booted out of office before he has time to devise any kind of plan, or any kind of future thinking. Economic policy, after all, has to be planned for a number of years, and cannot be delivered instantly, or immediately. The levels of incompetence, and also the willingness to lie, especially on the part of certain ministers who do so over and over again, is quite frankly astounding.

We also see incompetence in other areas of life. Beyond the situation in Afghanistan and the perception that Pakistan supports the Taliban, a factor which will have a trickledown effect in the country, the Punjab government and the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have been unable this year to manage the dengue crisis, which has now assumed the form of a virtual epidemic. People lie in hospitals across both provinces and many are in danger of dying.

There are many other examples of incompetence and of attempts to save the government, even if it is by using unfair means of all kinds, or by simply putting in place ordinances which suit the government. This will not work for long and the focus must be on finding a way to save people who were told not to worry about circumstances and continue with life to find a better way to sustain themselves, obtain enough food to live and to manage the enormous burdens that have fallen upon them due to inflation and the lack of a stable economy.

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