By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: The WIP
Pakistan has been hit by severe food price inflation – the worst in its 61-year history. The prices of many basic food items have more than doubled in the last year and poor families are now spending two thirds to three quarters of their monthly income on their meals alone.
Until last year nearly one third of Pakistan’s population was said to be below the poverty line. This figure has grown as more people have fallen into the poverty trap that is aggravated by the food crisis. The sudden rise in the incidence of suicide is an indicator of the increasing despondency that poverty and unemployment are breeding in the country. Social worker, Abdus Sattar Edhi, who has done enormous work to provide relief to indigent people, says nearly four or five people in the country commit suicide every day and that a large number of these cases can be attributed to the victims’ inability to make ends meet. Some of these incidents were so touching that they made headlines in national newspapers. Bushra Bibi, a mother of two, killed herself along with her two children by throwing everyone before an approaching train.
Although Pakistan’s economy has been in crisis for some time now, the real crunch has come with the rise in food and oil prices. Traditionally, the food intake of most people has been inadequate in the country and as a result malnutrition is rampant. According to Human Development in South Asia 2007, a report by the Mahbub ul Haq Human Development Center, 23 per cent of Pakistan’s people were undernourished in 2003 while 19 per cent of the country’s children were stunted, underweight or in severe health crisis in 2005. Doctors believe that in the last couple of years malnutrition has increased.
Health is the first casualty when food prices shoot up. Suddenly the common man cannot afford to buy a decent meal for his family. But people’s lives are also affected in many other ways. Nadia ekes out a living for herself and her five children by doing part time work in the homes of the well-to-do. Nadia’s husband is a daily wage earner in the building industry. As the economy has faltered, the building sector has slumped, which means Nadia’s husband returns home empty-handed in the evening more often than before. Previously in times of crisis – which were short-lived and temporary – Nadia managed to easily sustain the family by breaking the clay pot in which she kept her savings. Now the clay pot is empty and Nadia worries whether she will be able to feed her children on her income alone. She finds the cost daunting.
If the situation does not improve, Nadia may have to pull her children out of school because a considerable chunk of her income goes into educating her two sons and daughter. She regards her children’s schooling as an investment for the future. “But we need food to live,” Nadia laments. “If I have to divert my children’s school fees to buy food, I will not have much of a choice,” she remarks. That will be the end of her dream to give her children a brighter future.
It is a pity that this misfortune should befall Nadia and others like her in a country where agriculture contributes 24 percent to the gross domestic product. At one point Pakistan was self-sufficient in wheat cultivation, but when production did not meet the country’s demand last year, grain had to be imported. However, with astute economic planning the government can ensure that no person goes to bed hungry.
With the price of wheat and other grains rising on the international market it is increasingly difficult to isolate the price of local grain from the push and pull of the world economy. Globalization has created more difficulties for developing countries that do not find the playing field level; being financially weak and late to enter the game, they are not in a position to compete with the powerful forces that control the world markets. Disadvantaged by poor governance and the corruption of the rich and the powerful, the people of these countries have emerged as the worst victims of the world economic crisis. They find themselves handicapped by the restructuring programs imposed on them by the international aid giving agencies such as the World Bank and the IMF. As a quid pro quo for financial assistance, these organizations have insisted on imposing conditions on receiving governments that hit hard at the already impoverished masses.
Take the case of Pakistan, which should have been able to at least feed its own people. But the thrust towards a market economy has proved disastrous, leaving the poor at the mercy of the unregulated market forces. Poor and weak governance has added the evil of corruption to an already bleak picture. With a lot of wheat being smuggled out of the country or hoarded by unscrupulous dealers and the government unable to regulate the illicit trade, a shortage of the grain has sent its price skyrocketing. Until recently, government subsidies made many essential items affordable for the common man, but they are gradually being withdrawn at the behest of the World Bank and the IMF.
There is however a silver lining to this bleak situation. Many enterprising women have risen to meet the challenge by encouraging the poor to acquire self-sufficiency in food by growing their own vegetables in their backyards. Parveen Rahman, director of Orangi Pilot Project’s Research and Training Institute, comments on her organization’s aborted attempt to launch a program encouraging a kitchen garden in every home in the low-income Orangi Township. “This was many years ago and we could not get the women to take an interest in horticulture. So we cultivated OPP’s own little plot of land and grew vegetables there which the staff would purchase.” But now Parveen is hopeful that there will be more interest when she revives the kitchen garden program.
Another activist, Najma Sadeque, associated with Shirkatgah’s Green Economics Initiative, is already working on a plan to get women to grow vegetables at home. She is preparing a video to use for her training program.
The idea could well catch on. The resilience of the people knows no bound. As Parveen remarks, “Food is so costly now that new ideas stand a better chance of success. Necessity is the mother of invention.”