Exposing millions to hunger, malnutrition
May 25, 2012
While the ruling groups took on themselves the task of curbing militancy on the western borders, they clinically neglected the hapless masses braving the worst ever energy crisis and devastating floods and erratic rains. Superflation, depreciation and heavy taxation of energy sector took their toll on the people thus limiting their purchasing power and marginalising their employment prospects.
The price of food basket — essential kitchen items — has doubled during the last four years. Many food items that were previously available to the lower and middle income groups are beyond their reach now.
According to a report by a foreign agency, working for the poor and marginalized, human indices are lower in some areas of the country than in many African countries. Half of the country’s population is exposed to hunger and malnutrition and two-thirds of the food insecure people live in the countryside. The government’s usual response came two months back when the premier launched $16 billion National Zero Hunger Action Plan (NZHAP) which envisages interventions like capacity building of poor families, strengthening of social safety nets and zero-hunger shops.
Such program was initiated by Brazil in 2003 and it delivered because it was supplemented with government’s job growth program. In the absence of enough energy and that too at affordable rates such initiative in Pakistan is bound to fail making NZHAP just another attempt to institutionalise charity.
Government governs poorly
Despite all mismanagement of the land and water resources, the agriculture sector has not necessarily failed to produce enough. Its commercial side, which is essentially a realm of the big landholders, is doing well in the presence of necessary facilities available to them like machinery, supply of canal water, availability of bank loans etc.
The government itself has done its part in pushing the price of food up by raising and fixing the wheat price and showing a lax attitude towards curbing hoarding. While wheat flour is available on the market, the high prices and declining purchasing capacity of the commoners is the problem.
The landlords, who cultivate crops on commercial basis, and the financial sector involved in purchasing and storing the grain are shrewd enough to keep the prices high to the detriment of the poor segment of the society. The inflated rupee causes the flight of essential items like fruits and meat to the foreign shores.
While food prices are going up, health expenditure has gone up by 30%. Disease and hunger have seriously affected the ability of the average household to send its children to schools for quality education. The best way to reduce poverty is to adopt taxation measures that extract maximum from the rich and spend more on the poor but the fact of the matter is that the burden of exchequer is majorly placed on the lower and middle income groups but only 3% of GDP is reserved for the social sector.
Around 18% of GDP is being spent on defence without any insurance to life and property of the people. Public utilities like Steel Mills, PIA and Railways are consuming billions but no concrete plan is afoot to stop this practice.
Revisiting development policy
A paradigm shift in governance and planning is needed whereby optimum use of scarce resources like land and water ensures sustainable supplies of food.
If land reforms has become out of question, a fair distribution of water resources includes an essential step towards poverty alleviation for supply of such essential commodity falls short of the needs of small peasants, particularly in Bahawalpur where it is only available for just four months, that too on rotation basis (warrabandi system) — just think what cost it involves to pump out ground water for wheat crop!
And food security does not mean merely bumper crops but also sizeable production of fruits, vegetables and meat. The present development policy, a continuation of the colonial era, emphasises much on crops whereby the area of cultivatable lands has been increased on the expense of forestry, livestock and fisheries.
Not only has agriculture burdened the water resources, run off and underground, but it has also involved blind use of pesticides and chemical fertiliser with a result that poor families’ expenditure on fighting diseases has increased manifold.