The news of the deaths of another 21 children in Thar due to malnutrition brought about by drought was shocking for everyone. At least 30 more children were admitted to the hospital on Wednesday due to scarcity of food in drought-hit Tharparkar. About 175,000 families are reported to have been affected and some of them have been forced to leave their homes and move to barrage areas.
According to media reports emanating from the area, dozens of children are admitted to public and private hospitals of the district. Hospitals are overburdened but no alternate arrangements have been made to accommodate the patients.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), fears a massive humanitarian crisis in the desert. In its recent report Unicef has observed that nearly three million Pakistanis, mostly villagers, currently face possible starvation.
Government’s apathy, mismanagement and bad governance are obvious from the fact that bags of wheat are still to be distributed among the people. Drought is not a new occurrence in the Thar Desert. Total lack of foresight and coordination among the provincial administration has caused this tragedy.
If it was not for the media, and local TV channels no one would have known about this tragedy in our own backyard. The reports shook the provincial and central governments out of their hibernation to play the blame game. Musical chairs were played by removing/suspending officials and appointing new ones. All political nominees. Not appointed on merit or for their credentials but to appease workers and fatten the vote bank.
Belated relief efforts have begun in the district. The NGOs, government agencies and private sector have dispatched goods to be distributed among the people. Relief camps have been set up where provision of ration goods, food packages, water and medical assistance is being provided to the drought hit people.
The right to life under Article 9 of the constitution included a right to food and a right to be free from starvation and severe malnutrition. There is a dire need to come up with a long term strategy to deal with the situation not only in Tharparker but throughout the country as people are facing severe food insecurity.
The Pakistani people are increasingly vulnerable to food insecurity because of the government’s bad governance and its lack of political will to tackle hunger. According to the Global Hunger Index (GHI) prepared by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Pakistan is one of the most food-insecure countries in Asia.
According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, food security exists when people are able to access enough safe and nutritious food to live a healthy life. This food can be produced domestically, imported, or arrive through food assistance.
How many people are affected in Pakistan?
The World Food Program (WFP) 2013 report estimates that the number of food insecure people in the country has risen sharply following the 2010-2011 floods. “By 2010, almost 50 percent of the population, or 83 million people, were food insecure, up from 38 percent in 2003. In the aftermath of the 2010 flooding, it is believed that this figure may have risen to upwards of 90 million and yet more after the recent floods.”
According to the recent National Nutrition Survey, around 60 percent of Pakistan’s total population is facing food insecurity, and in these households, almost 50 percent women and children were malnourished.
All Pakistanis should have access to enough safe and nutritious food to sustain them, keep them healthy and enable them to lead productive lives. However, nearly 90 million people in Pakistan are “food insecure.”
Household food insecurity is influenced by a household’s ability to pay for food, physical access to adequate food resources, and health requirements for nutritious food. At the same time, the effects of militant extremism can still be felt, exacting a heavy social and financial toll in Pakistan.
Economic turbulence, power shortages and high food and fuel prices exacerbate instability, with unemployment on the increase and wage levels unable to keep pace with inflation rates. An average household spends almost 70 percent of its income on food leaving only 30 percent to cover their essential needs of education, health etc.
Unfair subsidy policies that disproportionately favor producers and penalize consumers are also to blame. Food insecurity is also due to unequal land distribution. For instance, the availability of and access to wheat is very different in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) compared to that in Punjab. Improved land access would reduce food prices for families and thus would help strengthen food security and reduce poverty, two closely linked issues.
Military-driven policies on the part of the government are also responsible for the Pakistani people’s high food insecurity. Regions where the government is conducting military operations, like the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or Baluchistan and the KP, have been found to be respectively ‘extremely food insecure’ and ‘food insecure’. The reason is of course the level of destruction caused by military operations, and also the number of persons forced to flee their homes in relation to the conflict.
It is estimated that 1.23 million Pakistanis have been internally displaced by the conflict against the Taliban and the so-called “war on terror”, and are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity. Instead of military spending, the government should invest a larger part of its budget to social development.
Food insecurity is not only about poverty and agriculture. It also leads to a host of humanitarian, human rights, socio-economic, environmental, developmental, political and security-related consequences. The society is divided by a growing poverty gap; the richest become richer, while the number of hungry rag pickers is increasing.
Hunger also comes hand in hand with violations of human rights by the state. Indeed, as stated by the Asian Human Rights Commission’s Food Justice Program, such violations by law-enforcement agencies are due to the deep inequality prevalent in the society, the same inequality that denies food or water to the people. The state-managed violence thus maintains inequalities in food distribution and is responsible for food insecurity. “Torture is used to keep people hungry,” insofar as it maintains a system of fear and deep inequalities that prejudices the most vulnerable.
What are the present challenges? From national and provincial perspectives, governments must strengthen their ability to address food security. Examples of important factors limiting improvements to food security include: low productivity, high input costs, quality of produce, lack of modern techniques and technology, high transportation costs, and loss of arable land.
Article 38 of the Pakistani constitution refers to the state’s responsibility to promote the social and economic well-being of the people. It notably refers to equity in food. It must also be recalled that Pakistan ratified several international human rights treaties which recognize the right to food. It is therefore the responsibility of the state before national and international law to protect its citizens’ right to food and to ensure their food security.
The solution lies not only in land or agricultural reforms, or in international conferences discussing global food prices. It lies in a deep change of mindset and implementation of rule of law and democracy that empowers the people. As its causes are structural, the solutions to food insecurity are also to be found in the structure of society. The struggle for food goes hand in hand with the struggle for justice and rule of law.
By Sarvat N. Hanif, Weekly Pulse Magazine, March 24, 2014