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A QUESTION OF PRIORITIES

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor

It seems really odd that our media continues to be obsessed with the continued MQM-PPP farce, the tussle between the executive and the judiciary and all kinds of other issues rooted in the murky national political arena, even while a far larger problem looms.

A number of recent reports have spoken of growing food insecurity in Pakistan and the fact that a majority of people simply do not have enough to eat. This should be a problem that draws far greater focus from political leaders given its gravity.

Pakistan, as a country which grows enough wheat to feed its people, should not be confronted with so many starving citizens nor should it suffer from levels of hunger which match those of sub-Saharan Africa. The fact that this is happening is shameful.

A report by the Islamabad-based Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) reveals that 48.6 percent of the population suffers from food insecurity. The levels are worse at 67.7 percent in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas followed by Balochistan, where the rate is marginally lower. The SDPI links food insecurity with growing conflict, violence and militancy in the country.

This is hardly a far-fetched conclusion. We know that militant groups thrive on recruiting desperate young men and boys who see no hope for the future, face ceaseless joblessness and come to believe, when the right propaganda is directed their way that a gun in the hand will give them the power and sense of purpose they seek.

The level of despondency that exists here can be gauged from incidents of the kind recently reported in which eight young Pakistanis stuffed into a cramped container died at the Turkish border while trying to make it to Greece.

They had paid agents large amounts from their savings and had even borrowed money so they could go overseas. Others before these young boys from Sialkot have followed a similar route. Some no older than 14 or so years have been apprehended on the Afghan or Iran borders. Others have tried to cling on to wheels of airplanes headed overseas. This degree of desperation is unusual and indicates the plight of millions.

A recent report by Oxfam makes things even plainer. The survey states that Pakistan is one of 21 countries in the world where food insecurity has grown as a result of fluctuations and increases in prices.

About 120 million people or two-thirds of the population spend 50 to 70 percent of their incomes on food. One can only imagine what is left to meet other urgent needs including healthcare and the education of children.

Humanitarian agencies’ fieldworkers report rising levels of malnutrition among men, women and children. The impact on women and children is most severe. Levels of stunting and wasting among children is said to be growing.

Concern has already been expressed by Unicef over this situation, uncovered to some extent after the floods of 2010 and exacerbated but not created by them. Experts believe the hunger existed well before water swept over large tracks of land and left people everywhere along the Indus homeless and destitute.

What is most disturbing about this situation is that official policies have, in many ways, directly created the crisis. The decision last year by a government that has consistently described itself as ‘pro-people’ to raise the wheat support price to Rs950 per 40 kg from the previous rate of Rs550 for the same amount has had a drastic effect and comes under terse criticism from international agencies such as the World Food Programme.

While the government, including the prime minister himself, asserts that the price increase is intended to help the rural poor and prevent smuggling to neighbouring countries notably Afghanistan, one can only wonder if the leadership considers this a reasonable step given the starvation it is causing.

It is true some farmers have benefitted from the increase. But the millions who live off salaries, remittances or other fixed incomes in both rural and urban areas can simply not manage.

To add to complications farmers growing sugar-cane or other crops are switching to wheat – creating the threat of a sugar shortage and further price rises in the future. It appears a key factor behind the steep increase is to collect rural votes – but the morality of this needs to be examined against the spectre of mass hunger.

We need to direct more attention towards the issue. The matter is of course a humanitarian one; the knowledge that people die regularly simply because they cannot get enough to eat is horrific. It deserves far more media attention – going beyond the relatively isolated incidents of a family committing suicide or parents selling children. But the problem is also one of security.

Links between poverty, militancy and deprivation have been well established. There is no coincidence in the fact that the worst problems lie in the most deprived areas – Fata and Balochistan. We cannot rid ourselves of terrorism till the key issue of the people is addressed and food for all ensured.

While it is obviously Pakistan’s own leaders who need to act in the interests of their people, and place the need to tackle starvation on a much higher priority, we also need more international attention directed towards the issue.

The development of the people holds the key to the future and the escape from the growing violence we face. Beyond militancy, this comes also in the form of growing crime, frustrations unleashed in other ways and a growth in intolerance and desperation.

There have been warnings already of a descent into anarchy if people cannot get enough food. The hunger of millions in an agrarian nation is a crisis. It is a much bigger one than the quibbling between political parties or even the power crisis.

More and more international studies are highlighting the extent of a silent calamity, to which, even now, there appears to be indifference from the political leadership and a lack of readiness to bring in the changes in policy needed to curb food price inflation of around 18 percent seen over the past three years or create the opportunities to earn a livelihood that people everywhere so desperately need.

Email: kamilahyat@hotmail.com

This article was originally published at: The News

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.