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Hunger pangs of Pakistan

Oct 13, 2009

Recently several women lost their lives in their attempt to receive food in Pakistan’s port city Karachi. This should be a wakeup call for the political leadership of the country that the hunger pangs of a nation cannot be left unheard and unattended, writes Niilofur Farrukh.

During Ramazan the prime minister — in all seriousness — indicated his desire for the Pakistani nation to consume less sugar to help tide over the sugar crisis. It made one wonder which section of society he was addressing.

Was it the elite, the very inventors of the culture of extravagant iftars, for whom even during the worst national crisis it is business, rather pleasure, as usual? If the mid-income group was his audience then he should know that inflation has already shrunk their budget as they battle with job retrenchment and chronic price hikes.

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Then there were the masses, often standing in long lines at the risk of being beaten and humiliated to buy a few kilos of sugar, so their large families were not deprived of one of the few remaining pleasures of life, a cup of sweetened tea.

Many of these people live close to or below the poverty line and can only afford one meagre meal a day.

The World Health Organisation has identified hunger as the gravest single threat to public health in the world and research data from Pakistan indicates widespread malnourishment among the rural and urban poor.

Children are at maximum risk because when food does not meet the caloric requirements of the growing body it can cause long-term nutrient deficiencies, which at first manifest themselves as low energy and later can lead to multiple health complications if left unattended.

Malnourishment in the adult workforce results in poor health that keeps workers from playing an effective role in the country’s development. Undernourished women pass on the effects of malnutrition to the next generation when they give birth to infants that start a new life with multiple deficiencies.

Roti, kapra aur makaan (food, clothing and shelter), promised so often to the people of Pakistan, is not just an election slogan but a right.

According to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, every person has a “right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food”, as well as the “fundamental right to be free from hunger”.

Just as it is the responsibility of the state to protect its citizens from external threats, the same is true of internal perils like food insecurity.

Governments that prioritise the welfare of their people employ maximum resources to ensure that food is available for purchase. During times of crisis they intervene to ensure food security for their citizens. States commit themselves to long- and short-term policies and allocate funds to increase agricultural yield through scientific research and technological intervention.

The availability of safe and healthy seeds is closely monitored. States also study the fine balance between cash and food crops to make sure that food needs are adequately met. Law-enforcement agencies and legislative mechanisms ensure that profiteers and food cartels do not monopolise the food supply.

In Pakistan, citizens faced with food insecurity have so far heard only empty promises and seen ad hoc arrangements while a comprehensive blueprint to eradicate food vulnerability from the state has yet to be shared with an increasingly anxious population.

On the contrary, fears that the government is leasing millions of acres of cultivable land to Gulf-based multinationals for corporate farming has raised many questions for Pakistan’s food sovereignty and ecology.

The head of the Food and Agriculture Organisation has warned that the controversial rise in land deals of millions of acres by rich governments and corporations in developing and underdeveloped countries in an effort to secure their own long-term food supplies could create a form of neo-colonialism, with poor states producing food for the rich at the expense of their own hungry people.

The track record of corporate farming is not as good as some government officials would have us believe. Financial clout and lack of local guidelines for land acquisition usually make it possible for big corporations to take over prime land.

This leaves the poor farmers with less productive land to meet the food needs of the country and can endanger the long-term food sovereignty of impoverished host nations.

Corporate farming, driven as it is by profit motives, has in the past shown little regard for environmental concerns and in fact caused irreversible environmental damage to leased land and its environs.

With huge funds at their disposal, corporations find it easier to monopolise the water supply and other resources, thus depriving neighbouring farms of their rightful share. These are some of the many factors that can cause social and economic disempowerment of poor farmers who form the backbone of Pakistan’s agrarian system.

The food crisis Pakistan is facing can only be reversed with a fundamental shift in the way the state perceives food and its link with the nation. Food needs to be looked upon not as a profitable commodity but the right of the people. A well-fed and healthy nation will be better equipped to participate in the country’s sustainable development.

Today food prices have taken staples beyond the reach of the average wage earner and the people’s desperation to obtain discounted and free food is often seen in endless lines where they brave heat and hardship.

Source : The Dawn
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