The Hunger Games in Pakistan
For many in the West, The Hunger Games is a box-office hit and a bestselling novel. For most Pakistanis, however, hunger games are no work of fiction. While several million Pakistanis are starving where only eight per cent of the children receive minimum acceptable diet, the government in Islamabad is finalising the budget, which if previous budgets are any indication, is unlikely to address hunger and misery that has spread to every nook and cranny in the country.
The budget document is an explicit statement about a government’s awareness of the challenges faced by the masses and how it plans to use the scarce resources to address those changes. Given the extensive food insecurity in Pakistan that has left millions starving, wasting, and stunting, one would have hoped to see Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) government to at least address chronic malnutrition by setting targets to reduce, if not eliminate, hunger from Pakistan. However, seasoned economists are already warning that the forthcoming budget represents “a continuity of the failed policies of the last four years rather than a fundamental shift in policies towards sound economic management.”
The widespread hunger and malnutrition in Pakistan is threatening the future of Pakistan where her children, the most vulnerable in any society, are exposed to severe malnutrition and other challenges that follow. Pakistan National Nutrition Survey for 2011, which was sponsored by UNICEF and conducted by the Agha Khan University, reveal that Pakistan’s state and society has failed miserably to even feed the children. The survey revealed that because of prevalent malnutrition, 44 per cent children under five years old in Pakistan are stunted. These children in the future are unlikely to attain the same height as of the non-stunted children. Thus, fifteen years down the road, almost half of Pakistan’s youth will not even be as tall as youth in other countries.
The uneven geography of hunger in Pakistan, as revealed by the Survey, suggests that some in Pakistan are more disadvantaged than the rest. Sindhis in particular are the worst off where almost three in four Sindhi families were found to be food insecure followed by Balochistan where 64 per cent households were food insecure. Given that the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party is a Sindh-based party, it is hard to comprehend why PPP’s provincial government in Sindh and the federal government in Islamabad have failed to address the plight of starving Sindhis. The very lack of awareness of what ails Sindhis is evident in the emotionally charged speech by the party’s Chairman where he offers his blood, head, and life to the people of Sindh but not water, food, and health. Mr. Bilawal Zardari should know that the masses in Sindh desperately need food and not his head.
While the inhabitants of Sindh suffer the most due to hunger, the rest of Pakistanis do not fare any better. The plight of young children requires serious consideration. In rural Pakistan, one in four children is experiencing severe stunting. In Balochistan, every other child is stunted. This is up from 43 per cent in 2001. General Musharraf’s misadventures in Balochistan not only have destroyed the peace today, but have also deprived the future generations of Balochs of the chance to be healthy and prosperous. How else would one explain a 21 per cent increase in stunting and 43 per cent increase in underweight children (under five) between 2001 and 2011 in Balochistan?
In the past 48 years, the state and the society has fared miserably in safeguarding the welfare of children in Pakistan. Since 1977, there has been a steady, albeit a slow-paced, increase in the percentage of children reported to be wasting. In 1965, 49 per cent of the children reported stunted growth in Pakistan. By 1977 a slightly smaller percentage (43 per cent) reported stunted growth. Almost no progress was made during General Zia’s tenure when the stunted growth was observed for 42 per cent of the children. During the tenure of civilian governments in 1990 and 1994, stunted growth was observed for 36 per cent of the children. By 2011, the progress made in the early nineties was wiped out as the percent of stunted children climbed back to 44 per cent.
While Pakistan has spent untold trillions on developing nuclear bombs and conventional weapons, it has starved research in food and crop production. Even in Asia, Pakistan spends the least in proportionate terms on agriculture research and development. Dr. Mubarak Ali of the Punjab Agriculture Research Board recently revealed that Pakistan invested 0.29 per cent of its agriculture GDP on research whereas India invested 0.4%, China 0.6%, and Japan invested 2.5 per cent. As for the money invested in research in Pakistan, most is spent on overheads. “Instead of investing on research and innovation, Pakistan’s agriculture sector is focused on increased use of inputs, including fertilisers, pesticides and water, which led to stagnation in productivity,” revealed Dr. Ali.
A lot was promised to the Muslims of the Subcontinent when they were asked to support the demand for an independent state for the Muslims. Three decades after independence, the masses were again promised food, clothing, and shelter (roti, kapra, aur makaan). The persistent hunger and disease over the past several decades suggest that Pakistan has failed to deliver on the promises made to the poor.
Can one expect the government to include provisions in the forthcoming budget to address child malnutrition in Pakistan? This will be a small step towards honouring the promises made to the children of Pakistan.
Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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