THE newly created ministry of national food security has not been able to implement its ‘Zero Hunger’ project even after seven months of its launch by former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

In fact, the ministry, a product of the 18th Amendment, is itself in a state of limbo. It is amazing that no formal approval has yet been accorded to the budgetary requirements of the zero hunger project.

The draft of its action plan prepared by the World Food Programme still lacks operational details. What is missing is a comprehensive plan which clearly spells out the objects and the nature of activities to be undertaken. With Gilani’s exit, the project’s pace has slowed down either due to the new ministry’s lack of interest or lack of cooperation from other ministries.

A major task of the project, to begin with, was to provide food to 45 extremely food insecure districts of the country but the whole scheme, it seems, has fallen victim to red-tapism. Food security minister Mir Israrullah Zehri told the Senate on October 16 that up to 58 per cent of the country’s population suffered from food insecurity.

He was quoting the figure from the National Nutrition Survey 2011 which was conducted by the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP). Of the total affected population, he said, 29.6 per cent suffered from hunger or severe hunger.

The Senate was informed about various studies, including the one carried out by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) in 2009. It showed that 48.6 per cent of the population was food insecure, out of which 22.4 per cent was extremely poor.The government had signed a Letter of Intent (LoI) with the World Food Programme in March under which it was to donate 500,000 tonnes of surplus wheat to the WFP annually for four to five years.

This amount was earmarked for making high-energy food products and iron-fortified flour for onward supply to the poverty-hit population and schoolchildren in the rural areas. The WFP was ready to spend the needed amount on the production of nutritious food products for onward supply to schools. However, the officials of the ministry of food security, who had initially shown enthusiasm in pursuing the case, have apparently turned indifferent probably due to cool response from other related ministries particularly after Gilani’s exit.

It seems the bureaucracy views the zero hunger as a project associated with the former PM. The promised wheat has, as such, not been provided to the WFP so far.

So, the ambitious pro-poor project can be described as a non-starter and it is unfortunate that for some unjustified reasons a segment of food insecure population of the country will be missing a chance of getting rid of poverty. The zero hunger idea has been borrowed from Brazil, where, in turn, it was borrowed partly from a Mexican initiative. Launched in 2003, it has been a great success in Brazil. A major achievement has been bringing of 50 million Brazilians out of poverty in the first six years of the project and reducing malnutrition by 73 per cent. The project runs dozens of social programmes ranging from the construction of water tanks in dry regions to agricultural loans and food aid. It feeds hungry people at a faster rate than any other programme in the world and has inspired many countries around the globe to initiate similar programmes.

Brazilian food security experts who were in Pakistan last week to apprise themselves with the progress of zero hunger project have offered to share their experience with Pakistani officials to help them accelerate the pace of the project.

How far we can benefit from their assistance will depend on the willingness of our bureaucracy to serve the food insecure population. The zero hunger project which is similar to Pakistan’s Benazir Income Support Programme in some ways is more comprehensive in content in many ways. It is backed by FAO and WFP while BISP is supported by the World Bank and top political leadership.

Secretary of the ministry of food security says that the six priorities of the zero hunger project, as proposed by the former prime minister, are school feeding programme in the most food insecure districts; nutrition programme for children under five; nutrition programme for pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers; targeted and conditional social safety nets; zero-hunger shops in low-income areas of major cities; and coordination among various federal and provincial ministries, and private-public partnership.

What remains generally ignored is the fact that while farmers grow enough food to feed the world, commodity speculators and greedy traders usually control the global food prices and supply chains to prevent poor population’s easy access to food at affordable prices.

Although Pakistan is producing sufficient food grains, often more than the required quantity, thus necessitating export of surplus wheat, food insecurity continues to persist. In fact, it is not the abundant availability of food in the market that ensures food security. It is the ability of the poor to purchase food that ends this insecurity.

A recent State Bank report on food security made bold observations. It said, “the unequitable distribution of land and the lack of constitutional rights for peasants prevalent in the country have to be addressed squarely, so that the poor people in rural areas gain access to, and control over, land resources.”

Pakistan, it said, is vulnerable to food insecurity because of several factors such as slowdown in availability of irrigation water; slower growth of food crops resulting in low yield, inadequate storage capacity, higher post-harvest losses and also the continuing war against terrorism.

According to SDPI report, the state of food security in Pakistan has deteriorated since 2003 and food security is inadequate in 61 per cent of the districts in the country. This is a sharp increase from 2003, when conditions for food security were inadequate in 45 per cent districts.

The provincial disparities exist in terms of food security. Fata has the highest percentage of food insecure population (67.7 per cent), followed by Balochistan, (61.2), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (56.2). The lowest percentage of food insecure population — 23.6 per cent — is in Islamabad.

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