By Allah Nawaz Samoo
WHEN the size, duration and intensity of a calamity exceed the resilience of the affected population and the people are unable to cope, a crisis-like situation develops.
Today, there are strong indications that over 40 per cent of the households in the country will be unable to maintain themselves at subsistence level if food prices continue to rise in the next two months.
Nearly half the population which is already experiencing substantial food deficit is at serious risk of falling into a state of absolute hunger. Ironically, this crisis has not come as a result of a natural calamity, drought or civil war. It follows a period when policymakers claimed that the country was experiencing unprecedented economic growth. The policies designed to achieve and sustain this growth, however, left the poor with very limited choices for securing subsistence-level livelihood. What was attained in the name of high growth rate was simply a ‘capital-augmenting and labour displacing’ arrangement which was indicative of ‘growth without development’.
The majority of the poor affected by this approach belong to the class of landless crop sharers and daily wage labourers who support large families at low average per capita income levels. Households belonging to this lowest income quartile spend as much as 91 per cent of their consumption budget on food. The current surge in prices poses a real risk of starvation for them. Referring to their extreme vulnerability around the world, IMF director Dominique Strauss-Kahn issued a warning in the recent spring meeting of the World Bank. He spoke of the ‘terrible impact’ and ‘dire consequences’ of this development as ‘hundreds of thousands of people will be starving’.
It seems strange that the warning of starvation in the new millennium identified the same factors for the disaster as was cited by British economist Arnold Toynbee to explain the food crisis that struck southern India in September 1918.
In his report on ‘grain riots’ Arnold Toynbee wrote, “Looting and rioting were expression of the panic and anger felt by the poor classes when faced with abrupt price rises or sudden disappearance of food grain from bazaars while large quantities of grain were known to be stacked in warehouses or barges and in railway yards ready for export elsewhere.”
The same ignominious practice was allowed to take place in the Bengal famine of 1942-43. Government policies encouraged the export of grain from India to avert the risk of hunger in Britain while extending the benefit of the trade to affluent traders at the cost of poor Indians. History records the Bengal famine of 1943 as a ‘boom famine’ which was attributed to moral degradation and ethical bankruptcy.
In the subsequent years, colonial powers came under severe criticism from the press and the intelligentsia for their callousness, and it was widely realised that the state had failed miserably in protecting the citizens’ basic right to food for survival. The widespread public anger compelled world powers to opt for a collective strategy to prevent absolute hunger and starvation. Agriculture was included as one of the key sectors in the global agenda for development.
A big proportion of international aid was diverted to newly independent and developing countries to ensure food security. As a result, most of these countries provided subsidies to growers, built basic infrastructure and introduced new affordable technologies to improve the quality and quantity of production. The green revolution of the sixties further reinforced these efforts through mechanisation, electrification and the extension of irrigation canals to far-flung rural areas.
The impact of these policy measures can be gauged from the fact that the agricultural sector was contributing 60 per cent to the GDP of Pakistan in 1951. In 2007, it had declined to 21 per cent. Not only that, in the sixties to the eighties, the prices of cereals and other food fell in real terms, both in the local market and in world markets. With the onset of the new millennium, however, the world food market witnessed two radical changes, namely, a shift in grain consumption patterns and the conversion of cereals into ethanol, a form of biofuel. Both these changes have given rise to a record price hike at a time not of scarcity but of abundance of food.
Policymakers in Pakistan either ignored or conveniently overlooked these developments in the last five years. By mid-2007, world food prices had jumped by 75 per cent and the food-price index touched its unprecedented highest level. Responding to the gravity of the situation, Russia and Venezuela imposed controls on food prices. China and Brazil invoked their contingency plans. However, our authorities did not bother to take any precautionary measure to tackle the situation even at the eleventh hour.
Now when, we are included in the 36 countries facing the risk of “food riots’, the call from world experts is ‘to address this (crisis) not just as an immediate emergency but also in the medium term for development”. The policy objective in the current scenario, therefore, needs to include a short-term relief and recovery package for the poor masses in order to avert the risk of disaster of hunger. At the same time, it also needs to have medium- to long-term strategies and safety nets to prevent recurrences of food crisis in the coming years.
Conditional cash transfers through strategies like cash-for-food and food-for-work have provided immediate relief and recovery to many poor in developing countries. The rate of success, however, depends on the efficiency, transparency and capacity of the available institutional infrastructure.
In the long term, we need to transform the poor and vulnerable class into a cadre of small growers each with its own piece of land. This would reduce poverty, create employment, and increase productivity. America and Europe have achieved current levels of food security by making this possible in the late sixties. It is time we embarked on this noble mission. The first step calls for land reforms – something we aspired to in the seventies but have still not achieved.
The writer is a development professional.
Courtesy: Daily Dawn, 26/4/2008