Jun 7, 2010

Growing hunger pushes Pakistan deeper into crisis


A very familiar sight in Pakistan. Waiting for their food. -- AP photo 

It isn't only cricket where India and Pakistan compete with each other. Both the countries are neck-to-neck when it comes to the percentage of population living in hunger. Despite faring below many of the Sub-Saharan countries in the hunger report card, India and Pakistan lack the political will to fight hunger. In fact, much of the hunger in India and Pakistan is their own creation, a result of the faulty economic policies the two nations have followed all these years.

It isn't easy to distinguish a hungry Pakistani from a hungry Indian. The hopeless face of hunger looks similar, unless of course you dig out the nationality. Read the following lines, and I bet you will not be able to find out whether I am talking about hunger and poverty in India or Pakistan: "Ours is a country where a handful gorge while tens of millions can’t get one square meal a day. The income disparity is shocking: in the rural areas, palatial havelis abut the dwellings of peasants who for generations have never stepped inside a school and live a life of virtual slavery. They are indebted to the landlord, in perpetuity, and can never escape the cyclical poverty that was the lot of their grandfathers’ and with which they must now cope forever."

These lines are from an editorial 'Poverty of Thought' published in Pakistan's influential daily Dawn (June 6, 2010)

The editorial further says: "The situation may be marginally better in urban Pakistan but not by much. Mansions sit right next door to slums but very few people find that odd or unsettling. It’s just taken for granted. Somehow extreme poverty is acceptable in this country, as is obscene wealth. It has somehow become ingrained in the collective mindset that misery is a fact of life that can be airily dismissed because “those people” are used to it. The rich can talk glibly because they eat three meals a day, own their homes for the most part, hire the poor at shockingly low rates to do their household chores and can turn to generators or tankers when there is no electricity or water."

How true. Extreme poverty is also acceptable in India, as is obscene wealth.

In the Global Hunger Index (GHI) prepared by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Pakistan fares better than India. The index ranks countries on a 100-point scale, with 0 being the best score (no hunger) and 100 being the worst. The 2007 GHI of India was 23.70, sand witched between 23.53 of Burkina Faso and 23.83 of Zimbabwe, the 65th and 67th rank holders respectively, out of 88 countries. In 2009, while India ranks 65th among 84 countries, Pakistan was a shade better at 58th position. 

The ranks of the newly poor are however swelling. Reports suggest that the number of rag pickers is increasing, obviously because of hunger. Parents are withdrawing children from schools because they can't afford the fees. According to Wolfgang Herbinger, country director for the World Food Programme in Pakistan, consumption of wheat in Pakistan fell 10 percent last year, because people lost the purchasing power to buy even that most basic of food staples. “Normally there is more than 20 million tonnes of (wheat) consumption in Pakistan, but last year only 18 million tonnes were consumed."

Hunger breeds terrorism. We all know that. While Pakistan faces the worst kind of terrorism, India is faced with an unprecedented internal revolt by the Maoists in several parts of the mineral-rich countryside. This is also the outcome of growing hunger, poverty and marginalisation of the tribal communities. In the quest for privatisation of natural resources, India is on fast track to hand over its natural wealth to the private companies. Pakistan on the other hand has given a religious colour to hunger and poverty, with most of the terrorist outfits exploiting the hungry by turning the poverty-stricken youth to religious strife.

As the Dawn editorial says: A recent Swiss study has found that over 48 per cent of Pakistanis are food insecure. The number of districts believed to be facing ‘extreme’ food insecurity has more than doubled between 2003 and 2009, while the number of food-secure districts has fallen by 14 per cent. The human misery aside, any right-thinking person should also spare a thought for where this hunger-driven helplessness will lead us. Already, parents who can’t feed their children are turning to madressahs where their kin are brainwashed into believing that the doctrine of hate is the final message."

At a time when hunger proliferates, I don't understand how can any sensible government think of leasing out its farmlands. Well, Pakistan is planning to do exactly that. Reports express fears of a possible increase in food insecurity in Pakistan if a deal to lease out 202,342.8 hectares of farmland to Saudi Arabia goes ahead. As per newspapers, talks are reportedly under way between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to finalize an agreement. The land, to be acquired in all four provinces of Pakistan, would be used to grow food to help Saudi Arabia meet its own food needs.

This is happening at a time when as per the World Food Program (2008 data), 77 million Pakistanis—nearly half the country’s total population—are food insecure, while 95 of Pakistan’s 121 districts face problems such as hunger and malnutrition-related disease. A year earlier, a UNICEF report concluded that half of all child deaths in Pakistan can be attributed to poor nutrition.

Although not much is heard about efforts being made within Pakistan to draw attention to the misery surrounding hunger and poverty, the Asia Program, with assistance from the Environmental Change and Security Program, the Comparative Urban Studies Project, the Program on Science, Technology, America, and the Global Economy, and the Karachi-based Fellowship Fund for Pakistan, hosted a conference on June 3 to illustrate the magnitude and manifestations of Pakistan’s food insecurity; to identify its possible causes; and to consider ways forward.

Speaking at this meeting, Abid Qaiyum Suleri of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) poses more of a security than a humanitarian threat to Pakistan. Suleri, the conference’s luncheon speaker, asserted that steady increases in the number of food-insecure individuals have led to class conflict (between “haves” and “have-nots”) and violence that ultimately weaken the state. The high prevalence of food insecurity has intensified “extraordinary behavior,” giving rise to suicides, suicide attacks, and the selling of children, and hastening the loss of dignity.

To address this crisis, Suleri proposed a “paradigm shift” in public spending that moves away from national defense and toward social development, and that benefits the individual, not the state. Suleri called on the international community to step up activities that improve Pakistan’s distribution of food to those in need, that increase food absorption capacities in camps for the internally displaced, and that expand the reach of humanitarian operations already under way. “It’s not the atomic bomb,” Suleri declared, “but the courage of the individual [that is] needed for social change.”

To know more about the views of the speakers at the conference, here is the press release.
Hunger Pains: Pakistan's Food Insecurity
http://www.wilsoncenter.org/ondemand/index.cfm?fuseaction=media.play&mediaid=83969BFF-023E-0C13-FEB30695A7A3D8E5conference’s

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