Why they don’t drop dead

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.

Food Absorption in Pakistan (Image courtesy: Dawn.com)
Food Absorption in Pakistan (Image courtesy: Dawn.com)

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.

Source: Dawn

8 thoughts on “Why they don’t drop dead

  1. most useful write up.

    HRs is not only about protecting life but also the "quality" of life. this aspect has been degraded as the world hurtles towards post-modern period.

    where hunger, want and destitution still stalk the ordinary mortals while the affluent and the powerful have appropriated the fundamental right to life: food security

    no amount of freedom and progress would be meaningful until the inequitable distribution of food is resolved and people do not die of hunger and the children do not grow up stunted as is the case in developing nations

  2. at a conference attended by some well-read agri specialist this question of malnutrition despite increased food production was put to an expert panel on agri.I was surprised the so-called Dr. had no idea why this was so.

  3. I am glad that my comments on your column "Whose land is this?" provoked interest in you as the heading of your column of Wednesday last reflects that. It is evident that you do take critique offered by readers seriously.

    1. Since I am a journalist and understand the importance of free expression of opinion. I had acknowledged you by name but Dawn preferred to keep your name out.I do wonder, However, if you still believe what you wrote. Did you read Adil Zareef's commen?Zubeida

      1. First, thank you for your speedy response to my comments above. I continue to maintain that one has to have a balanced view. Whilst Pakistan, doubtless, has some concerns regarding some selected food items during certain parts of the year especially near to and during the month of Rama'dhan, it is not the availability, it is high prices that concern most people.

        I am now quoting from my memory, about two years back WHO had recommended 2400 daily intake of calories, and Pakistan was short by just 30 calories. The question of massive malnutrition, therefore, can not arise.

        I respect your opinion, but I am afraid I do not agree with it. Any statement that you make in your column, whether you have taken it from an authentic study or a research paper, instantly becomes your ownership . Therefore, cautioned has to be exercised in including information or data from such sources. So much material is available on the internet these days that without much ado one could easily produce a 300 page volume each month on any given subject.


          1. Zubeida may be I am missing a point or you are missing mine. I think that we have a perception gap, lets agree to disagree, and leave it at that.

  4. I would weight heavily the following words of this page:

    "there is a need for educating people about the true state of affairs in the country where so many go hungry".

    Proper education and law is also needed to produce as well as 100% consumption of nutritious food.

Comments are closed.