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Almost half of the people in Pakistan are food insecure. This is informed by different studies conducted by various organisations using different datasets and methodologies. Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) and World Food Program’s report released in 2010 suggests that 48.6 percent population in Pakistan is food insecure.

Mahboob ul Haq Development Foundation’s Human Development report 2011 says that food was inaccessible for more than one third of Pakistanis. It also reveals that food consumption in terms of Kcal/day is much below other developing countries. National Nutrition Survey commissioned by UNICEF in 2011 mentions that 58 percent population in Pakistan is facing food insecurity and moderate to severe hunger. Global Hunger Index by FAO places Pakistan food insecurity level as alarming.

Let us take a pause here, and look at poverty statistics. Planning Commission, during Shaukat Aziz government, revealed that 17 percent people of Pakistan were living below the poverty line. This claim was challenged by coalition government’s finance minister Ishaq Dar in 2008, who was of the opinion that 44 percent people in Pakistan were living below poverty line.

Since then, there is no official disclosure of poverty figures in Pakistan. Last year, a report was prepared by the Planning Commission, which on the basis of Pakistan Standard for Social and Living Measurement survey (PSLM), reflected that 12 percent people in Pakistan were living below poverty line.

However, the poverty figure was so unrealistic that the government never officially released that report. Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) has spent millions of rupees on poverty score card exercise. They have available data for 27 million households. Unfortunately, instead of strengthening Pakistan Bureau of Statistics and getting this data collected through it, BISP policy makers preferred to collect data through Chartered Accountant firms and National Rural Support Programme.

There is nothing wrong with these organisations, but they were never specialised in collecting data at such a huge scale. Thus, we have no analysis of mini poverty census conducted by BISP and cannot use that data to determine state of poverty in Pakistan either.

Last month, SDPI came up with its multi-dimensional poverty index (MPI), an international measure of acute poverty developed by Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative. The MPI uses 10 indicators to measure poverty in three dimensions: education, health, assets and living standards.

The study reveals that among the worst 20 districts in Pakistan with acute poverty incidence, 16 were located in the province of Balochistan and four in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The report also revealed that “Balochistan is the poorest of all provinces with 52 per cent population living below poverty line, followed by Sindh with 33 per cent, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with 32 per cent and Punjab with 19 per cent”. In absolute numbers, 58.7 million people are living below the poverty line in Pakistan out of the total population of estimated 180 million.

Here it is worth mentioning that MPI study of SDPI did not use the data for SDPI’s food security analysis. However, one thing common in both the reports is state of affairs in Balochistan. According to food insecurity report, 10 districts of Balochistan are included among the 20 worst food insecure districts of Pakistan.

According to MPI, the number of Balochistan district among 20 worst poverty districts of Pakistan has gone up to 16. One can only understand immediate need for finding a political solution for permanent peace in Baloshistan if above mentioned statistics are given serious attention.

Coming back to food insecurity and poverty, we should realise that food insecurity, hunger, and poverty are three distinct phenomena but are interlinked and their cumulative effect is much worse than the effect of original problem. In my opinion, the major triggers for extremism, violence, and lawlessness in society are poverty, hunger, marginalisation, social exclusion, and class conflict.

People targeting public and private property, smashing vehicles, and burning cinemas, banks, and restaurants were not reflecting their religious sentiments. Most of them were challenging the class divide, and in their opinion were taking revenge from those who “have”. It was an opportunity for them to show their anger on the system which has created two classes, a minority that “have” and a majority that “don’t have anything”.

What matters here is the governmental and societal response to tackle these problems which are eroding the very basis of social fabric. First things first, we need to know the exact number of people who are victims of poverty and food insecurity. The government needs not to shy away from facts. It should recognise the existence of problems to come up with a strategy to resolve it. We are using projections based on 1998 Census, have not released the official poverty figure for the last five years, and claim that Pakistan produces bumper wheat crop, it exports rice and a major producer of milk so is not a food insecure country.

The above-mentioned mindset among policymakers sabotaged the  “Zero Hunger Pakistan” programme which was launched in March 2012 by the then Prime Minister. The programme could have been one of the flagship programmes of the PPP government which was designed to take care of hunger and malnutrition among children, breast feeding mothers, and expecting mothers. Despite Premier Gilani’s announcement, the ministry of finance never allocated money for this programme.

This is the mindset which does not allow our decision makers to recognise that poverty score card used by BISP as poverty estimation tool has certain flaws and can be improved. Poverty score card merely captures asset poverty. It is not catered for capturing multi-dimensional poverty that has trapped every third Pakistani today. Rs 1000 per moth given to selected households can be a temporary relief for few (if at all) but cannot address poverty until health, education, clean drinking water, and sanitation services are ensured and livelihood opportunities are created.

For this to happen, uninterrupted supply of energy at affordable prices is a must. Ad-hoc measures, like BISP, even if it is increased to rupees 10,000 per month cannot be a substitute to state’s responsibility of addressing factors which are turning every 2nd Pakistani food insecure and every 3rd Pakistani poor.

Addressing poverty and food insecurity requires a paradigm shift, a shift towards human development and individual security for which governments would have to empower people, hear their voice, and be accountable to them for pursuing the policies which have turned rich more rich, fast eliminating the middle class, and pushing the poor in abject poverty.

The writer is executive director of Sustainable Development Policy Institute and can be contacted at

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.