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Feeding the bomb, starving the nation


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Pakistanis are fast becoming a wasted nation. The alarmingly high level of malnutrition observed in Pakistan in the past few years is far worse than what has been observed in the sub-Saharan Africa. Millions of Pakistani children have been identified as stunted, under-weight, and wasting because of hunger, disease, and poverty.

While the future of millions of children is threatened by hunger, the civil and military elites in Pakistan continue to pour undisclosed billions into conventional and nuclear weapons. The oft morbidly obese leaders of the right-wing religious and political parties are also in step with the military establishment as they continue to mobilise the starving masses to support developing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

In 2006, the United Nations estimated that no fewer than 35 million Pakistanis were malnourished. However, those who put the nation on the path to pursue nuclear weapons never suffered poverty, disease or hunger. For instance, Dr. Qadeer Khan’s daughters did not have to starve even when their father was pursuing prohibitively expensive Uranium enrichment for the weapons program. And whereas Mr. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto promised to eat grass if he had to for pursuing nuclear weapons, he or his kin never did. Between their villas in Europe and hotels in Mali, those who pushed Pakistan into pursuing nuclear weapons did quite well for their personal fortunes.

The same could not be said for millions of starving Pakistanis whose welfare, experts believe, is worse than those in the war-torn Africa. Last week, Pakistan Humanitarian Forum, a consortium of 41 large international NGOs, revealed that 2.5 million people in the flood-stricken areas were still without food, water, shelter, sanitation, and healthcare. David Wright, country director of the NGO Save the Children, was explicit in his warnings about the dire conditions threatening the very survival of the flood-affected families in Sindh. “The floods have exposed and deepened a food crisis in Sindh that has resulted in malnutrition rates far worse than those in sub-Saharan Africa,” he warned.

Masroor Gilani of AFP reported last week on the plight of Najma Warag, a mother of three children rendered homeless by the floods in southern Badin. ”If you want to see what a miserable life is, come and visit us. Our children are sick, we have no home, no clothes, no money, and eat only one meal a day,” Ms. Warag told AFP of her daily struggle with life. Unlike Aafia Saddiqui, whose detention in the United States is a cause celebre for the urban Pakistanis, Najma Warag and her children are no one’s top priority on the political left or right of Pakistan.

The hardliners amongst the religious political parties and their proxies in the outlawed militant groups neither help the starving in Pakistan nor let others come to their rescue. Pakistan has become one of the most dangerous places for expatriate workers. In fact, no other single country has recorded as many expat workers kidnapped as in Pakistan.

While the right-wing religious parties, militants and their handlers have been reluctant to help the starving flood victims, the federal government has not fared any better. In a recently released report, international aid agencies revealed that as they rushed in to help in August 2011, Pakistani government preempted them for assisting the flood victims. The aid agencies wanted to disburse cash directly to the flood victims. The government instead wanted to be in the middle, adding extra layers of bureaucracy and increasing the odds of graft in relief aid distribution. By end of August 2011, 2 million Pakistanis were already hit by the floods. The government reluctantly permitted international aid agencies to operate in Pakistan weeks later on September 07, 2011.

It is hard to comprehend why Pakistani government initially prevented relief efforts by international donors, especially when the government itself had fallen short of providing relief to the flood victims in 2011 and earlier in 2010 when the UN declared that floods in Pakistan were the greatest humanitarian crisis in its 65 year history. The Associated Press (AP) reported in January 2011 that the UN had declared that flood-hit areas in Pakistan were experiencing famine-like malnutrition. A survey jointly conducted by UNICEF and the government of Sindh revealed that one in every four children in Sindh was suffering from acute malnutrition. Karen Allen, UNICEF’s deputy representative in Pakistan, was alarmed by the “shockingly bad” conditions of the victims of flood. She told AP in January 2011 that she had not seen “levels of malnutrition this bad since the worst famine in Ethiopia, Darfur, and Chad.”

With such dire warnings from the international relief organisations issued as early as in January 2011, the Pakistani government failed to heed when the floods hit yet again in August 2011.

Food Price Inflation

While the floods played havoc with Pakistan’s food supply chains, the very poor in Pakistan were already finding it hard to feed their families, owing to the grain price inflation in 2007. As the prices of staple food items increased globally, the poor in Pakistan had to cut their food intake because their food budgets could not afford enough. Whereas the grain prices stabilised in 2008 and 2009, the same did not happen in Pakistan where wheat prices continued to soar, owing to the ill-planning and lack of foresight on the part of the government.

Wolfgang Herbinger, director of the World Food Program (WFP) in Pakistan told AFP in March 2011 that the reason behind sustained food price inflation in Pakistan is the fact that the government of Pakistan, being the largest wheat buyer, sets the farm-gate prices. And even when grain production normalised globally, as well as in Pakistan, the prices did not adjust in Pakistan because the government continued to buy wheat at higher than the market price in Pakistan, thus raising the price for all wheat buyers. If the prices are not adjusted, warned Herbinger, the country can be full of food, however, the majority may still not be able to afford it.

Asma Razzaq, writing in the Business Reorder, reported in October 2011 that Pakistan produces 36 million tons of grains and consumes 28 million tons. Even with a surplus of 8 million tons, 60 per cent Pakistanis reported experiencing food insecurity because of inflated prices of food staples.

Food price inflation continues to threaten the welfare of the very poor across the globe. According to Save the Children, 250 million parents globally fed their children less in 2011. The food price inflation has contributed to malnutrition that has caused stunted growth in 170 million children globally. Justin Forsyth, who heads Save the Children, told the Independent earlier in February that if no concentrated action was taken, “half a billion children will be physically and mentally stunted over the next 15 years.”

Pakistan, like other developing countries facing malnutrition, runs the risk of a 2 to 3 per cent decline in GDP resulting from stunted growth. At the individual level, a 15 point decline in IQ has been observed for those experiencing stunted growth.

Global Indifference To Pakistan’s Misery

By early 2011 it was obvious that one in four children in Sindh were malnourished. While malnutrition reached alarmingly high levels in Sindh, much above the WHO’s 15 per cent threshold, which triggers the alarms for an humanitarian crisis, the global response to Pakistan’s misery was inadequate. The UN and its sister organisations appealed for hundred of millions of dollars. Only a fraction of the needed funds were raised. Many believe that the poor image of Pakistan after the 9/11 tragedy has contributed to apathy towards Pakistan.

Not all malnourished are ignored like the ones in Pakistan. Singer Bono and his friends have run campaigns and held concerts to raise funds for the starving in Africa. The millions of starving Pakistanis did not attract Bono’s attention. In fact, if it were not for Angelina Jolie, the plight of starving Pakistanis would not have made to the six o’ clock news in most of the western world.

While Bono and the rest failed to notice the plight of starving victims of flood, Shahzad Roy, Abrar-ul-Haq, and others have lent their voices and songs to raise the plight of the unfortunate Pakistanis. They are no less sincere and dedicated than Bono and Company. The question is if anybody’s listening.

Musharraf’s Regime Did No Better

Many in Pakistan and abroad naively believe that the false economy General Musharraf had constructed on a house of cards was better than the civilian rule that followed. Nothing is farther from the truth. While the current civilian government had to cope with two devastating floods and deal with the civil war that has spilled from Pakistan’s frontiers into its urban heartland, the Musharraf regime had to cope mostly with the aftermath of the devastating earthquake, which despite the horrendous death toll of approximately 80,000 did not disrupt food production. One would have hoped to see less hunger in Pakistan in 2007 after the Musharraf regime had a freehand to rule since 1999.

According to an international survey by Gallup International, which interviewed 58,000 people in 56 countries between June and September 2008, 53 per cent Pakistanis reported often or sometimes lacking food in the past 12 months. Notice the same survey revealed that 48 per cent of Nigerians, 42 per cent of Peruvians, and 40 per cent in Philippines also reported lack of adequate access to food. A disproportionately large number of Pakistanis, even when compared with other countries of similar socio-economics, suffered from hunger when General Musharraf was in control either in civvies or in fatigues.

A Bad Neighbourhood

Malnutrition among children is indeed a global problem. Each year, five to seven million children die of malnutrition. South Asia, however, is one of the worst affected areas which is home to half of the world’s malnourished children. The 2008 UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children Report revealed that 48 per cent of children in India, 43 per cent in Bangladesh, and 37 per cent in Pakistan had stunted growth. While India’s economic miracle is praised all over, it does not change the fact that child malnourishment is more prevalent in India than in Pakistan.

According to a report jointly commissioned by UNICEF, the World Bank, and USAID, 50 per cent of children born in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan in 1999 weighed less than 2.5 kg. Research has revealed that underweight children at birth rarely catch-up in weight and height later. In Afghanistan, 40 to 50 per cent children are estimated to have stunted growth.

Pervez Shaukat, a Pakistan journalist and a friend, visited India after she tested a nuclear weapon in Pokhran. While in New Delhi, Pervez’s cab stopped at an intersection. A malnourished older woman clutching two weak children in her arms begged for money. Pervez gave her some money and asked her where she was from. Pokhran, she replied. “You must be very proud of your hometown that became the symbol of India’s nuclear prowess,” Pervez inquired. The woman’s response stunned Pervez. “Why don’t they drop a bomb on us as well to deliver us from the misery that we are in.”

For those millions whose children are starving today in Pakistan, the choice between the bomb or bread is not a difficult one. They need bread for their starving children. However, their misery and hunger is not a priority for the civil and military rulers. In the guise of feeding the bomb, elites in Pakistan have fed themselves and their children.

The nuclear scientists, armed forces personnel, members of the civil establishment, politicians, and others (including mullahs) associated with Pakistan’s conventional and nuclear weapons have all grown fatter over the past four decades. Their children either live abroad or hold dual nationalities. They never had to eat grass.

As for millions of other partially-fed Pakistanis, whose future is supposedly guaranteed by nuclear and other bombs, there is an urgent need to secure their present. Thousands of nuclear weapons did not prevent the Soviet Union from disintegrating after it failed to feed and clothe its citizens. Pakistan must avoid the same fate by putting bread before bombs.


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

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Murtaza Haider is a Toronto-based academic and the director of

He tweets @regionomics

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (40) Closed

MunnaBhai00 Feb 22, 2012 02:51pm
Cent percent agree with u our south asian countries well being of the common masses is lurking at the bottom of the agenda table.In the race for ultimate weapons we have forgotten our not so lucky fellow country men.But still ur friend and journalist Parvez Shaukat's extraordinary inquiry left a bad taste in my mouth.I mean haven't he seen any beggar before?? Was he serious??Well tells a lot about a Man's character.And why this question in Delhi?? Why not in Karachi?? And why all the articles written about Pakistan directly or indirectly have reference about India??I mean check all your articles you have this tendency to compare Pakistan and India at every small nook and corner??Though i agree with your viewpoint but still the incidence was in bad light.More like making fun of some poor lady.Regards.
Sreeni Feb 22, 2012 03:39pm
Wonderful article Mr. Murtaza, hope this article reaches the administrators of all the countries whose citizen's are malnourished.
Zoeb Feb 22, 2012 03:53pm
@MunnaBhai00: I don't see any negative facts or making fun of the poor lady. Infact, Murtaza highlighted a serious issue which should shake some souls in the high corridors of our poor country with rich ruling elite. The game of politics is being played with each other's cunnivance. The article is supposedly about Pakistan with reference to India's having nuclear arsenal and having same poor and hungry as in Pakistan. The relevance is coincidental because both neighbors tested and showed nuclear weaponry following each others footsteps.
maryam Feb 22, 2012 04:18pm
i agree 100% bombs won't save us!!!
musahib hussain Feb 22, 2012 04:42pm
Exellant article, really commendable, live long Mutaza.
Gazala Feb 22, 2012 04:50pm
Shehzad roy is our bono. He is a true revolutionary and i love his songs
Khan Jr Feb 22, 2012 05:40pm
Wasn't it ZA Bhutto who said "We will eat grass and leaves for a thousand years, even go hungry, but we will get [a nuclear bomb] of our own". Well we haven't got one bomb but over a hundred and our people have now begun eating "grass and leaves". It's our obsessions that will eventually wreck this country.
noshad Feb 22, 2012 05:40pm
so nice article dear malnutarion has been apivotal reason in our failure basically.
Surya Feb 22, 2012 05:42pm
Agreed. What is the reason? Dont blame the governments.Basically we the people from these countries are totally selfish, sadistic,full of greed, without any semblem of INSANIYAT.
venu Feb 22, 2012 05:51pm
i dont really buy your views. if india is investing billions on defence there is a reason for it has been attacked again and again by china and pakistan. history is witness and i dont think india had attacked any country. coming to the lady from pokhran she could have begged anyway even if she is not from pokhran. everybody has the right to do work in india earn their livelihood. why beg then. children are malnourished in india and elseware bcause people are ignorant and greedy.
Ahsan Samad Feb 22, 2012 06:14pm
I wish Murtaza had written this article when Pakistan decided to explode the bomb in a tit for tat reaction to India. It would have talked some sense into our leaders.
peter palli Feb 22, 2012 06:43pm
Really.. Just blame the poor right.. If you think is that children are malnourished because their parents are ignorant, you are mistaken. It is the responsibility of the society/government to educate the people. We need to invest in social safety net that would guarantee minimum food /education for children upto 14 years. Then they get equal chance at the world to become something.. Just blaming them doesn't help you. A lot of time opportunities does not exist because they are born into it and they are stuck there and can't get out.. Help some one if you can..
Irfan Hussain Feb 22, 2012 06:58pm
Venu, Everyone has right to work, but work and money is not available - that's the reason the lady was begging because of hunger. Please dont try to justify the hunger on nationalist grounds - rather think keeping yourself at their position!
Salotti Feb 22, 2012 07:47pm
A great article. Other then the huge cost, the bomb is dangerous. Just having them in the arsenal puts a country in danger of a preemptive strike by a like armed enemy.
Shari Feb 22, 2012 07:51pm
A good article, thanks.
shamsi Feb 22, 2012 08:05pm
I dont think ATOMIC bomb or nuclear technology is the cause for poor in Pakistan. It has saved Pakistan from being out right attack from these adverseries. Of course Bomb cant feed the poor but Bomb does not make our politician corrupt. Its that capitalist system which is prevalent and immorality of our leaders that our economy is in such a dire state.Science or technology, thats what the nuclear science and atomic energy is ,by it self is not moral or immoral ,actually its the people who has it has to decide , how to use it.And most importantly Pakistan had no choice but to acquire this technology and thanks God it did at right time.By the way we have to be aware of those people who teach us the message of being complaisant and with out preparations while they have criticise the nuclear arsenals of USA and India.They also have poor in their countries too. Hope fully one day when world will be ready to be nuclear free then we also will dismantle our bombs.Bomb for peace.
Virendra Feb 22, 2012 08:12pm
I am sorry but was the comparison with India mentioned to give a moral boost. That Indians are no better than Pakistani in hunger. Unfortunately this comparison with India in each and everything is what is causing the problem in first place. Set your own parameters or at least compare with some developed country. Not a poor cousin.
BRR Feb 22, 2012 08:41pm
Ask any Pakistani will a full stomach if he is proud of the Islamic Bomb, and the answer is likely to be an emphatic YES.
Khan Feb 22, 2012 09:09pm
Had this argument been true that "Feeding the bomb and starving the nation", then there would have been no starvation in any of the 3rd world countries. Mr. Murtaza wrote a very poor article, targeting on Nuclear Technology. What are his comments regarding the mind sets of Rich and Poor countries and Rich and Poor people, in this planet ?
Bilal Feb 22, 2012 09:31pm
Just a great article, simply great!!! Keep up the good work, I hope it your message is clear, for those "difference maker", I just HOPE...
Hussain Feb 22, 2012 09:43pm
This writer has produced more fiction than facts in this article.
N.G. Krishnan Feb 22, 2012 09:54pm
In day to day activities I have been intimately associated with psych of Indian population from poor rural back ground. Massive problem of malnutrition which is affecting huge swath of population is NOT ECONOMICAL. It is certainly due to deeply rooted superstitious religious beliefs, very poor scientific temper and fatalistic attitude. These traits combined with poor education are proving to be a deadly concoction. It is a gargantuan effort to even to make a dent in improving the situation. I agree with you that it is criminal to waste to spend on WMD but it will be futile expect only money to solve this problem. It is infinitely more complicated than this simplistic logic.
Khalid Feb 22, 2012 10:06pm
Just think about the difference between Iraq and North Korea. It will give you the answer why Pakistan needed to develope the bomb.
AK Feb 22, 2012 11:32pm
Why does Pakistani government buy wheat locally at an inflated price and export wheat to import later at higher price? This is not a coincidence but fraudulent manipulation by feudal landlords who occupy the parliament and twist the policy to get more for their crops from the government exchequer and also make profits from both exporting and importing. On top of it, they pass laws which exempt them from taxation themself. A multi-layer fraud which results in malnutrition of million. They all have blood on their hands. I guess malnourished children make the perfect next generation of slaves they can abuse to keep working the farms and sustain the dynasties.
rahmat Feb 23, 2012 12:53am
excellent !!!!! murtaza i wish we have more people like you , allah bless you . keep the good work ..please every sensible person in pakistan specilaly the educated community..... pakistan is heading on the wrong direction every body weak up and do some thing about it ........ because this ship is sinking before is too late ... to save it ..
Daniyal Malik Feb 23, 2012 12:58am
"However, those who put the nation on the path to pursue nuclear weapons never suffered poverty, disease or hunger. For instance, Dr. Qadeer Khan’s daughters did not have to starve even when their father was pursuing prohibitively expensive Uranium enrichment for the weapons program." Stopped reading the article after this. What do you mean by this?
Sandeep Feb 23, 2012 12:58am
Murtaza's article hits the nail on the head and can describe the situation in most countries in South Asia with minor changes. The region is obsessed with security and spends more on resources that kill than resources that nurture. I am however unable to understand the comment Murtaza makes about international icon's and their effort or lack of it. Bono and his group are doing something but cannot replace the effort of the government. We cannot fault Bono for not doing anything about hunger in Pakistan or any other part of the world. In today's edition there is also an article on how rich in Pakistan are avoiding paying flood surcharge on their taxes. Yes one can argue that the most of the money collected through the surcharge will not reach the poor but even if 10% of what is collected reaches the poor there would be a few less hungry people for a few days or weeks or months. Time South Asian countries looked inwards for answers rather than someone else to bring them out of misery!
Karani Feb 23, 2012 08:41am
The title of this article should be pampering the elite and politician by starving the poor. What about Trillions of Ruppees of corruption and inept governess which have brought misery to this nation. 10% of the population living like royalty on the back og 90% of population.
Sanjiv Feb 23, 2012 08:46am
A beautiful article. Unfortunately we are moving towards a more Fascist world where rich-poor divide is increasing and the poor don't stand a chance. South Asians have got to be the most feudal humans around.
parmoon shuja Feb 23, 2012 09:05am
Show it to the leaders in the Parliament Islamabad, please. Is it not sad?
baldtree Feb 23, 2012 09:37am
A timely article, should be cause for introspection among Indians too. Poverty is inexcusable for any nation esp a democracy like India
Ismail Feb 23, 2012 10:32am
Good article, though. As usual, cannot finish up your article in one go-too long for me. Population growth is perhaps Pakistan’s most imminent worry. In 1960, the population was about 48 million; in 1980 it was 84 million; in 2000 it was 138 million and today’s estimate is over 170 million. There are more people in Pakistan than in Russia. I fear that famine my strike, as it has in Niger, where people are starving to death every day. Ismail, Seattle
jagjit sidhoo Feb 23, 2012 12:28pm
We have rich govts & armies who keep telling the poor to be ready to fight the enemy .There is no enemy he only exists in the minds of the ruling elite .
Gamer Wamer Feb 23, 2012 03:20pm
You can make false promises and the poor will believe you and vote for you. That is why the "masses" and the "common men" must always remain poor. Only then the rich and the powerful can rule. That is why politicians are like professional wrestlers...opponents in public and friends in private.
N.G. Krishnan Feb 23, 2012 04:48pm
“work and money is not available”? Many cities in India have a real problem of getting people for employment. Many a hotels have been converted to self-service mode due paucity of labour. Willing can always find work, may be underemployment. Talk to a small and medium scale industrialist about their difficulty in getting educated and or skilled workers, they will tell you their woes. Many of them get the worker from north east and Orissa and provide them accommodation and food to overcome workers shortage. Yes, some people do beg to sustenance but otherwise it is an organized racket little to do with poverty.
N.G. Krishnan Feb 23, 2012 09:09pm
Author assumes money saved from military hardware can be utilized for other noble work. I do wish life work with logic. It does not work that way. Money that is saved from the bomb will more often than not end up getting salted away in overseas tax heavens. Neither it will be bomb nor people welfare. Poor will continue to be in their miserable lowly status. The redemption of dispossessed from poverty is possible only if they are liberated from the clutches of superstitious religious dogmas, acquire scientific temper and develop a questioning mind. It is an awesome task but there no way but to make a start.
zaki babar Feb 23, 2012 10:08pm
The bomb has created a bomb crater in the minds of the few and in the stomachs of the multitude and the things would continue the way they are, inshallah ,unless we give sanity a chance to prevail.Great eye opening article.
ARJ Feb 24, 2012 01:27pm
Poverty is wretched. And worse are those who exploit ignorance in poverty to drive their visionary goals including the Bomb.
Abdul Muqtadir Feb 28, 2012 06:07am
Excellent article. The auther should have thrown light on the wasted budget on large expenses on conventional army of Pakistan. It is true that the bomb has costed and is still costing a lot of money. However this should have been offsetted by reducing the large number of conventional armed forces, their luxuries, perks and purchase of arms. Unfortunately the army budget is extermly high for the poor nation.
hassan ali May 24, 2012 08:40am
i m totally agree with Mr.Murtaza that our elites and military is no care for poor nation of this country,they are in the race of nuclear weapons and spend billion of dollars on lethal weapon and their maintaning,while million of pakistanis are dieing due to scarcity of food,they have no shelter and clothes to wear.Our politicians are also doing the same they only care for their bank accounts no matter how many to secrifice.So its time for the revolution remove these corrupt politicians and bearucracy so that honest people will come farward and led they nation.