By Zubeida Mustafa
HAS the sight of a child scavenging for food from an overflowing garbage bin made your heart bleed? This is common in Karachi, where kitchen waste containing a lot of cooked food is thrown away. This child is one of the 31.5 per cent of under-fives in Pakistan who were found to be underweight by the 2011 National Nutrition Survey. Nearly 43.7pc were categorised as ‘stunted’. The figures are expected to rise in the NNS currently under way.
On the contrary, the British medical journal Lancet tells us that Pakistan ranks ninth out of 188 countries in the Global Burden of Disease Study, and that one third of the population is obese. Overeating is one of the main causes of obesity.
That is not the end of the story of food paradoxes in Pakistan, an agricultural country where 63pc of the people live in rural areas and agriculture is the mainstay of the national economy, contributing 18.9 pc to GDP, accounting for 60pc of export earnings and being the biggest employer which provides jobs to 45pc of the labour force. Yet we are told by the UN’s World Food Programme that 62pc of the population suffers from food insecurity — which means it lives with hunger and fears starvation because it is not assured of availability, accessibility and affordability of food. This tragedy exists in spite of the fact that wheat production has been growing steadily in the country. In the last 20 years, wheat production has increased from 16.6 million metric tonnes in 1997 to 26.5m metric tonnes in 2017.
Yet the irony is that the man who tills the land to feed the country cannot feed his own family adequately. The most impoverished are our peasants. Why are they so vulnerable to exploitation — even more than factory workers? The primary factor is the nature of landownership in Pakistan that predates the country itself and throws the peasants at the mercy of their oppressors. It has created inequities of the worst kind that render the playing field uneven, making it difficult for the agricultural workers to fight back. Combined with political power, the privilege of landownership has emerged as a formidable force in Pakistan. According to studies conducted by various peasants’ bodies, only 5pc of large landholders possess 64pc of total farm land while 65pc small farmers hold 15pc of the land. Fifty per cent of rural households are landless and poor. Over the years, feudal landowners have joined hands with the industrialists, the military and the corporate sector to form an oligarchy that ensures its privileged position is always protected.
The man who tills the land to feed the country cannot feed his own family.
In this relationship of ‘I scratch your back, you scratch mine’, these partners-in-crime ensure that the laws are such that their own food security and other privileges are always safeguarded. But the same are denied to the tillers who are grossly disadvantaged. On an average, each family cultivates less than 12.5 acres of land. It is trapped by the peshgi system (advance payments) as the tenancy terms are highly unjust and leave the tillers with peanuts at the end of the day. The prevailing system has reinforced the power of the ruling elements while disempowering the tillers. Thus any change in the landownership pattern has been firmly resisted, the last nail in its coffin being the Sharia court’s judgement in 2016 declaring land reforms to be un-Islamic.
As though this were not enough, Pakistan’s food sovereignty was bartered away by vested interests to the detriment of the peasants. The Corporate Farming Ordinance, 2000, allowed foreigners to buy large tracts of land and take away the produce to their own country. Be they Arabs or Chinese, they are using our land and our water to feed their own animals and people. Our government also went on to open the door to the entry of the highly damaging genetically modified seeds. That is how the multinationals were enabled to introduce BT cotton in Pakistan, bringing with it the scourge of chemical fertilisers and insecticides that are needed to counter pest attacks. The seed law was changed in 2015 to protect the monopoly of the seed companies and their costly produce.
In this bleak scenario the peasants are fighting back. Azra Sayeed, the executive director of Root for Equity and an activist for peasants’ rights, insists that they can be protected by ensuring food sovereignty and the equitable distribution of land. This is also the demand of the peasant bodies, such as the Pakistan Kissan Mazdoor Tehreek and the Anjuman-i-Mazareen Punjab. The authorities have cracked down brutally on them whenever they have rallied in protest. Wasn’t it Allama Iqbal who wrote:
Jis khet se dehqan ko muyassar na ho rozi Us khet ke har khosha-i-gandum ko jalla do.
The land which cannot feed its tiller/ Should have its grain burnt down.