The Pakistani people are increasingly vulnerable to food insecurity because of the government’s bad governance and its lack of political will to tackle hunger. According to the Global Hunger Index (GHI) prepared by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Pakistan is one of the most food-insecure countries in Asia. Causes of food insecurity are as various as its consequences and the government must acknowledge its responsibility to tackle all dimensions of this complex issue that threatens the lives of more than 83 million Pakistanis.
‘Food security’ means the availability of food and one’s access to it. According to recent reports and international rankings, food insecurity is an increasing issue in Pakistan. In 2009, the country was ranked 58th among 84 developing countries (India was ranked 65th). Over 48 per cent of Pakistanis are food insecure today, according to the Swiss-sponsored report The state of food security in Pakistan, cited by Dawn editorial Poverty of thoughts. The number of districts believed to be facing “extreme” food insecurity has more than doubled between 2003 and 2009, while the number of food-secure districts has fallen by 14 per cent. In 2007, UNICEF concluded that half of all child deaths in Pakistan could be attributed to poor nutrition.
The world remembers images of “hunger riots” in the past years because of a double-digit surge in food costs. The extraordinary rise of global food prices in early 2008, notably due to an increasing demand for food by the growing world population, a decline in agricultural investments and rapid increase in oil prices, along with the international financial crisis, hit developing countries’ economies and deeply endanger their population’s access to adequate nutrition.
The reasons for food insecurity in Pakistan are not only external. The government bears a strong responsibility in this situation. Zafar Altar of the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council denounces the bad governmental management of agriculture, notably the disproportionate emphasis on wheat, the inefficiencies of fertilizer and irrigation systems, the poor infrastructure in the western provinces, and a lack of innovative knowledge generation. Unfair subsidy policies that disproportionately favour producers and penalize consumers are also to blame. Food insecurity is also due to unequal land distribution. For instance, the availability of, and access to, wheat is very different in poor Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and in rich Punjab. Instead of launching broad-based and efficient land reforms, the government is selling 202,342.8 hectares of farmland to Saudi Arabia, so that it can meet its own food needs. An improved land access would reduce food prices for families and thus would help strengthen food security and reduce poverty, two closely linked issues.
Military-driven policies on the part of the government are also responsible for the Pakistani people’s high food insecurity. Regions where the government is conducting military operations, like the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or Baluchistan and the NWFP have been found to be respectively “extremely food insecure” and “food insecure”. The reason is of course the level of destruction caused by military operations, and also the number of persons forced to flee their homes in relation to the conflict. 1.23 million Pakistanis has allegedly been internally displaced by the conflict against the Taliban and the so-called “war on terror” and are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity. Instead of military spending, the government should invest a larger part of its budget in social development.
Food insecurity is not only about poverty and agriculture. It also causes a host of humanitarian, human rights, socio-economic, environmental, developmental, political and security-related consequences. The society is divided by a growing poverty gap. The richest become richer, while the number of hungry rag pickers is increasing.
The state cannot implement the rule of law and efficiently guarantee its people’s rights if their right to food is not protected. For instance, some Pakistani families have to choose between their children’s education and their nutrition, as underlined in the Dawn editorial Poverty of thought. Struggling parents therefore withdraw their children from school, sometimes sending them to a Madressa (Muslim seminary). There is a great risk of thus creating an uneducated and radicalised youth. History has shown that hunger leads to insurrection and terrorism. In Pakistan, religious extremists exploit the hungry and uneducated, leading to greater instability and ignorance. The exploitation of hunger will push the country further into crisis.
Hunger also comes hand in hand with violations of human rights by the state. Indeed, as stated by the Asian Human Rights Commission’s Food Justice Program, such violations by law-enforcement agencies are due to the deep inequality that reigns in the society, the same inequality that denies food or water to the people. The state-managed violence thus maintains inequalities in food distribution and is responsible for food insecurity. “Torture is used to keep people hungry””, insofar as it maintains a system of fear and deep inequalities that prejudices the most vulnerable.
Article 38 of the Pakistani Constitution refers to the state’s responsibility to promote the social and economic well-being of the people. It notably refers to equity in food. It must also be recalled that Pakistan ratified several international human rights treaties which recognize the right to food: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. It is therefore the responsibility of the state before national and international law to protect its citizens’ right to food and to ensure their food security.
The solution is not only in land or agricultural reforms, or in international conferences discussing global food prices. It lays in a deep change of mindset and implementation of rule of law and democracy that empowers the people. As its causes are structural, the solutions to food insecurity are also to be found in the structure of society. A change of mindset to improve the status of women would for instance significantly reduce child malnutrition. The struggle for food goes hand by hand with the struggle for justice and rule of law.