By Zubeida Mustafa
LAST Friday the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) organised a ‘March against Hunger’ to demand that the government and civil society enhance people’s awareness of their right to basic nutrition and food security through combined efforts.
I think this event was most timely given the utter lack of public understanding of the issue. One example of poor knowledge of the subject was an observation on my column ‘Whose land is this?’ (Nov 20) where I had pointed out the adverse impact of our failure to introduce land reforms as being the “rise in food insecurity” leading to nearly 50pc of Pakistan’s population suffering from malnourishment.
A reader noted that if high levels of malnutrition in the country were a fact, people would be dropping dead in their hundreds, and that villagers produced enough food for themselves and the country.
This amounts to turning a blind eye to the plight of nearly 120 million Pakistanis living below the poverty line. We cannot afford to do that, and there is a need for educating people about the true state of affairs in the country where so many go hungry.
There is no doubt that crop production in the country has increased in the last few years. But so has food insecurity. This might appear to be a contradiction in terms. Two of the demands made by the HRCP at the end of the march on Friday tell the whole story. The HRCP called for “curbing smuggling and hoarding of food, especially in times of crisis” and “putting in place a mechanism to check prices of staple foods from rising, as well as reconsidering the minimum wage regime to ensure affordability”.
In other words, in spite of higher production, food is expensive and an adequate and balanced diet is beyond the reach of a majority of people.
The major cause of this unhappy phenomenon is the high food inflation that was 14pc in 2012-2013 and 18pc in 2010-2011. The Pakistan Economic Survey reminds us that the retail price of wheat flour in 2000-2001 was about Rs10 per kilogramme. In 2013 it had shot up to Rs35 per kilogramme.
This happened at a time wheat production went up from 20 million tonnes to 24m tonnes per annum. And if some studies do conclude the average calorie intake per head is almost at par with figures for other countries, it is pretty obvious that more food is being consumed by the affluent than what is their need. As in all other sectors — education, healthcare, income, land ownership, etc — food consumption follows a similar inequitable pattern.
The privileged ‘haves’ possess enough resources to spend on exotic food items that are a luxury rather than a basic need. In fact, their food budget is a fraction of their total income. The poor spend more than half their budget on a diet that is meagre in quantity and substandard in quality.
This does not cause people to drop dead on the road. But it certainly causes very serious problems of another kind. People denied good food are unhealthy, malnourished and prone to illnesses of all kinds which means their work output is low and their quality of life is terrible.
Children who do not receive proper nourishment in the first 1,000 days of their life do not have the same mental capacity as their compatriots who are well fed. Does this provide the poor the recipe for pulling themselves out of poverty?
The question to be asked is why? And what is the solution? The HRCP is spot on when it demands mechanisms to provide social justice and an end to corruption. Many of the food crises we have experienced have been directly attributed to politically powerful land and mill owners who have created artificial shortages causing food prices to shoot up.
The impact on the lives of ordinary people of the sugar crisis, the tomato crisis and even the annual Ramazan price hike has been severe while the profits earned by the sugar magnates, the agricultural barons and others have been stupendous. Land reforms and regulation of the food market can help make food more accessible to all people.
Another factor that is preventing people from starving to death is the philanthropy for which the country is famous. There are many charities and philanthropic concerns that are food focused. Free kitchens are set up providing two free meals a day with no questions asked. Although in an ideal situation people should not be made dependent on charity as our government has become, this strategy wards off starvation.
The HRCP and others have suggested a better approach. The government would do well to follow it.
The Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, a professor of economics at Cambridge, pointed out many years ago that people die of starvation during famines not because there is a scarcity of food, but because food doesn’t reach them.