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South Asia as a region is food insecure and marred by hunger. According to the Global Hunger Index 2011; Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan are facing alarming level of hunger, whereas Nepal and Sri Lanka have “serious” level of hunger which is only one step behind “alarming”.
Like other South Asian countries, the things on this front are quite disturbing in Pakistan too. According to Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) and World Food Programs (WFP)’s district ranking of food insecurity, 33pc population in Pakistan was food insecure in 2003.
Despite the claims of historic economic growth during Gen. Musharraf’s era, over a six years period the food insecure population had touched 48.6pc in 2009 (SDPI-WFP-SDC report 2010). The same trend was also reported by South Asia Human Development Report 2011 as well as by recent National Nutritional Survey which quoted that in 2010, 58pc people in Pakistan were food insecure and 63pc children under five were anemic.
Despite the fact that half of the population in Pakistan is food insecure, the government policy makers, till recently, were denying that food insecurity was an issue in Pakistan. Most of them used to quote bumper crop of wheat and rice as evidence that Pakistan was not a food insecure country. To them, hunger was merely a production issue which was to be addressed through increased production.
Let me clarify that I am not against increased production as long as it is achieved through principles of sustainability and within the socio-economic access to every one. Food security is a multidimensional concept. It is not only about increasing the yield. It is not only about increasing the income and not only about improving utilisation capacity (through provision of better drinking water, sanitation, and health facilities). It necessitates physical availability of food (through production, imports, aid), socio-economic access to food, and improved conditions for food utilisation. Ensuring food security is too complicated and required a dedicated agency that should coordinate with public and private sector actors, draw up, and implement food security policies.
The good news is that despite the persistent denial from official sources food insecurity has eventually been acknowledged as a problem in Pakistan at the official level. Thanks to the 18th Amendment in the Constitution which turned food and agriculture as provincial subjects and gave room for creation of a ministry for food security at the federal level. In fact, this is something that I have been advocating for long.
For the last 12 years I have been criticising the bureaucrats when they are wrong, but it was extremely pleasant to see that the Secretary Ministry of National Food Security and Research (MNFSR) had gone through the literature on food security and was of the firm opinion that attaining food security is something beyond increasing production of wheat. I should give full marks to this nascent ministry which did its homework and got principle approval of a “Zero Hunger Pakistan Program” from the Prime Minister.
Addressing the concluding plenary of National Food Security Conference last month, the Prime Minister acknowledged that food insecurity was a serious issue in Pakistan and mattered immediate attention. He approved school feed programme in 45 worst food insecure districts of Pakistan. He also approved special nutrition programmes (in collaboration with the United Nation agencies mainly the WFP and FAO) for breast-feeding mothers, pregnant women, and children under five years of age. He announced establishment of “zero hunger shops” in urban slums and rural areas of 45 extremely food insecure districts.
These shops would provide subsidised food items to the beneficiaries of the programme. The Prime Minister also promised that funds would be allocated in the next federal budget for Zero Hunger Pakistan program. On top of it, he approved establishment of National Food Security Council, a body that would help in preparation of national food security strategy and facilitate simultaneous implementation of a set of food security policies under this strategy by different federal and provincial agencies.
Some of the salient interventions of Zero Hunger Program include,
1. School feeding programme in most food-insecure districts
2. Nutrition programmes for under 5 year children and pregnant and breast feeding women
3. Conditional cash/food transfers to the most food insecure households
4. Cash/food support for vulnerable affected by man-made and natural disasters
5. Stimulus programmes to expand farm outputs and market access
6. Targeted and conditional social safety nets
7. Rationalisation of market prices of food commodities
8. Food supply and distribution programmes for urban/rural poor and highly food insecure
9. Improved nutritious quality of food intake (fortified food)
10. Diversification of food
11. Food processing industry even at community level
12. Food and nutrition awareness and education programme
13. Overcome malnutrition through health and nutrition programmes; and
14. Enhanced coordination among various federal and provincial ministries, and public-private-civil society partnerships

Zero Hunger Program (ZHP) also talks of food security surveillance; research for food policy/production, quality improvement, storage, distribution and monitoring and getting Policy formulation to ensure food security as a human right.
There would be lot of challenges for ZHP. The programme seems quite ambitious and would require lot of coordination and integration with some of the existing programmes. Its implementation also seems problematic in terms of institutional arrangements not only among various federal ministries but also between federal and provincial governments.
It is also true that we do have governance problems. The targeting of food insecure may not be very ideal and there may be lot of pilferages in targeted and non-targeted interventions for the food insecure. Another bottleneck may be scarcity of resources. The provinces may not buy the idea of ZHP, and the list of challenges would go on and on.
I realise that most of the above-mentioned constraints to ZHP are very real and complicated but so is the issue of food insecurity. On practical side, one can learn what worked and what did not work from countries like Indonesia, Brazil, and Mexico where such programmes are being run very effectively. One can also learn from Nepal and India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Schemes to design food for work and cash for work initiatives that would help the masses to combat food price volatility.
I am mindful that it would require a great paradigm change to give the same importance to (to be constituted) National Food Security Council which we used to give to National Security Council. However, this would have to be done. The fact of the matter is that food insecurity can threaten national security. A country can never achieve “state security” without assuring food security for its citizens. We cannot climb up the ladder of nations with more than half of our population which is food insecure, anemic and malnourished. Poverty-violence nexus aside, hunger has direct and indirect economic cost too. According to DFID, economic cost of Iodine and vitamin deficiency in Pakistan is 2.5pc of GDP. One may imagine the cost of macro nutrient deficiencies if only the micro nutrient deficiency can cost us 2.5pc of the GDP.
A hunger-free Pakistan should be the dream of all of us. Ensuring food security must be part of the manifesto of every political party. The Prime Minister should ensure that his words are translated into reality and sufficient resources are allocated in the next federal budget for ZHP plan. The provincial governments, especially the Government of Punjab, should not ignore this plan thinking it is an initiative of the federal government. Hunger hits all of us and any possible solution to reduce it should not be politicised.
The writer is Executive Director Sustainable Development Policy Institute and lead author of SDPI-WFP-SDC report Food Insecurity in Pakistan 2009

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.