by Sarwar Bari
“The number of hungry people increased by about 50 million in 2007 as a result of high food prices.” — FAO director-deneral Jacques Diouf
At the beginning of 2001 the number of hungry people in the world was 830 million. In 2007-08 another 55 million joined them. The majority (about 62 percent) lives in the Asia-Pacific region and 17 percent of the total population of the region (3 billion) is malnourished. In Pakistan, at least 33 percent of the country’s 169 million people live in poverty, which was 29 percent in the beginning of 2007. This means nearly five million people who were living above the poverty line have now fallen below the line.
The number of hungry and malnourished people is increasing by the day as opportunities of earning and income are being reduced due to poor economic management by governments and unfair world trade practices. This is a very serious situation as hunger breeds malnutrition and the malnutrition makes people sick and subsequently increases the cost of medical treatment and keeps people away from work. The speed of the poverty-hunger cyclical trap has gained momentum in the last one year. Statistics alone tell nothing. Numbers can’t express the depth of pain and grief. What happens behind percentages and numbers is important to discover in order to push for change.
The Pattan Development Organisation took a humble step in this regard. In the last two months, its staff conducted 37 focus group discussions with various social classes in eight districts of the Punjab and Islamabad. The findings from FGDs are alarming.
Firstly, it shows that the surge in food and energy prices has affected almost all social groups though differentially. Secondly, despite the fact that the difference in scale and impact of high food/energy prices on various social groups are radically different, some similarities are found in their coping mechanisms. For example the poor families reportedly stopped sending their children to schools and instead put them to work, while the lower middle classes said they have transferred their children to low-cost schools. Some of the people who were really poor reported that they have been forced to beg.
A significant number of lower-middle-class and less poor respondents were found cutting on meals. Now they take two meals a day instead of three. They have also switched to low- quality food items. Most participants have reduced their protein intake. This will, of course, affect their health badly. Some of the respondents mentioned that they had been selling their assets such as jewellery, TV sets, refrigerators, animals, lands and motorbikes to cope with the 35 percent food inflation. It was also mentioned by various groups that instead of going to doctors they have switched to self-medication.
Those who have well-off relations and friends were found seeking loans from them while others were forced to get loans from local moneylenders at high interest rates. The borrowing trend among people has been causing serious indebtedness, which will have high social cost for people. Also lower middle class participants reported to have cut on their leisure activities. Many poor participants said that they have started doing odd work in addition to their normal jobs. A significant number of lower-middle-class professional participants said that they were applying and/or searching for better-paid jobs. Some professionals said they have had to engage their womenfolk in paid work.
Smoker participants said they have switched to low-quality brands or have reduced consumption of cigarettes. Almost everybody reported an increase in crimes like theft, stealing, snatching of motorbikes, kidnapping for ransom. It also appears from the study that the extended family system is being strengthened. Some participants said they have moved to their parents’ homes or sent their children and wives back to their villages.
The Focus Group Discussions cover only a fraction of the country; but it did cover the opinion of all social groups except the rich. Therefore, the findings of the exercise could be generalised in order to draw some conclusions.
The situation is very alarming. If it is so serious in Punjab and Islamabad, the intensity and scale of the impact of the surge of food and energy prices in poverty-stricken districts must be far deeper and more widespread. It could be inferred that a huge but silent downward trend of social mobility is underway in complete silence. If this silence will continue is another question. I have serious doubts.
The people who have seen some improvement in their lives in the past and are now being threatened or deprived of their living standard are not going to be content. Especially when their dignity is being violated whenever they go to collect wheat flour from fair price outlets and go to pay their utility bills. The media has reported a number of such incidences. Recently in Quetta, women who went to collect wheat flour from a distribution centre were baton-charged. Dignified access to affordable quality food is an inalienable right of all citizens. Food scarcity can dehumanise people.
Unfortunately, this acute problem has attracted very little attention of the government, the media, the intelligentsia and the civil society. I scanned the op-ed pages of the six leading English and Urdu newspapers of the last six months. To my surprise there were hardly any serious articles written on this issue by regular columnists. Their main focus remained the glamorous political drama. Civil society has also failed to voice concern about the marginalised. Political parties have failed to channel the anger of the hungry masses. Our legislative assemblies also did very little in this regard.
The federal and provincial governments have not come up with any comprehensive policy to address the issue on a long-term basis. The Punjab government tried to solve the problem through administrative measures. In four months the Punjab chief minister replaced four secretaries of the food department. This further worsened the supply of wheat flour due to rigid administrative measures against the owners of flourmills. In retaliation Mr Shahbaz Sharif, an ardent enemy of nationalisation, had to take over many flourmills. This is no solution to the problem.
On Oct 7-8 the finance ministers of the Commonwealth countries will gather in St Lucia to discuss the implications of high food and energy prices for economic management. What the government of Pakistan will present in the Commonwealth meeting is anybody’s guess. The government has not engaged the media, the opposition and the civil society. However, the Commonwealth Foundation has helped the civil society organisations of the Commonwealth countries to develop their common position on the theme.
The CSOs’ statement contains analysis of the situation and various policy recommendations for both the rich and the poor countries of the Commonwealth. Briefly the statement urges the Commonwealth countries to provide food items on affordable prices to the poor, introduce budget cuts on defence and armaments; provide incentives to farmers for food production, conduct research on agriculture and the impact of climate change, and remove bad practices in trade.
As successive studies show smaller farms are more productive than larger ones, governments are urged to introduce land reforms. Since smaller farmers tend to prefer to grow grain and vegetables, the production of grain will go up with these reforms. The statement also urges the rich countries to increase their commitment to MDGs from 0.7 percent of their GDP to 1 percent. The rich countries have already defaulted on their commitment while we are half way through the MDGs timeframe. Right now it seems like just a distant dream as the World financial capital has not faced such crisis since the 1930s.
The governments of the developing countries appear to have the same attitude towards the poor. Poverty and hunger is perhaps the greatest threat to peace and environment. Therefore, it must be comprehensively addressed through macro and micro measures. The hope lies with political and civil society leaderships. They must channel the simmering anger of the poor masses in order to push governments to take concrete steps to eliminate hunger.
The writer is social and rights activist. Email: bari@ pattan.org
Source: Daily Jang, 6/10/2008