Dr Abid Suleri talks to Moniza Inam on various aspects of the problem.Dr Suleri is the executive director, Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), social policy analyst and a development practitioner. Here, he gives his expert opinion on the subject affecting the masses.
Can you please elaborate why Pakistan has not been able to feed its population despite having an agriculture-based economy?
Firstly, we are no longer an agro-based economy. Services sector is the largest contributor of our gross domestic product (GDP). In agriculture our focus remained (and still is) on increased food production and enhanced productivity. This partially tackled the issue of physical availability, yet the issue of socio-economic access to food remained the biggest problem. Over the years, one saw some improvement in food production followed by increased prices.
In 2008, Pakistan was the sixth largest producer of wheat and the ninth largest wheat exporter, yet wheat prices doubled in that particular year. Even now, while we have sufficient wheat stored in our reserves, the prices of flour have shot up to Rs42 per kg from Rs33 per kg. Lack of employment opportunities, energy crisis (which has deprived the people of their existing income assets), natural and man-made disasters especially recent floods, inflation, withdrawal of subsidies on agro-inputs and more importantly governance crisis are the major contributors towards increased hunger. I believe that hunger in the wake of abundant production of food is merely a governance crisis.
What policies and measures did the government introduce to reduce hunger and malnourishment?
There are (and were) many stand-alone initiatives such as the Benazir Income Support Programme, Baitul-Mal, Rural Support Programmes and Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers. In March 2012, Yousuf Raza Gilani, the then prime minister, initiated the National Zero Hunger Programme for the 45 worst food-insecure districts. However, that programme never took off and became a victim of a bureaucratic tussle between the ministry of national food security and research (MNFSR) and the ministry of finance.
The launch of Zero Hunger Programme had symbolic significance as the prime minister admitted on record that 48.6 per cent of people in the country were extremely food insecure. Barring that occasion, our policymakers are in a constant state of denial. Citing bumper production of wheat, milk and export of rice, they simply rule out that food insecurity is an issue in the country. The mindset to deny existence of a problem coupled with governance issues is the root cause of all policy failures against hunger and malnourishment.
Does the government plan to invest in agriculture research to achieve better self sufficiency in food production?
There are a few issues here. First the contribution of agriculture to GDP is declining, so investment in agriculture is no more a public or private priority. Second, there is a complete disconnect among agricultural universities, applied research centres and field extension services. Third, there is no research on improved food storage, agricultural marketing and measures to improve access to food. Weak coordination between federal and provincial governments in the context of devolution of ministry of food, agriculture and livestock is yet another hurdle in bridging research-policy-practice gap.
Can you explain the political and social implications of food insecurity on society and national cohesion?
‘Insecurity breeds insecurity’ is true in case of food insecurity as well. In the absence of an effective social safety net mechanism and in the presence of huge income inequalities, food insecure individuals may resort to extraordinary behaviours. Some of these deeds include violent and destructive protests for basic amenities such as uninterrupted supply of electricity, natural gas and water; resorting to industrial action (which may turn violent); organ trade, putting children on sale; resorting to various criminal activities (theft, burglary, petty and street crimes, robbery, kidnapping for ransom, etc.); and forcing women into prostitution and kids into child labour.
In extreme cases, some people commit suicide and/or kill all their family members and a few may fall prey to the Jihadi propaganda of militant groups by becoming suicide bombers and militant fighters. All these behaviours not only promote intolerance and violence, they also lead to socio-political instability. Due to Pakistan’s peculiar geo-strategic situation, any socio-political instability has the potential to create a situation where regional or global players may want to intervene.
At meso level, perception of individual marginalisation, social vulnerability, social exclusion and individual food insecurity may lead to social conflict and contest over scarce resources as and when individual insecurity takes on a collective identity — be it ethnicity, creed, gender, sect, class, or regional. This may lead to social instability and may erode the basic societal fabric when it turns violent. The fact that this is already taking place in today’s Pakistan is there for everyone to see in the cases of urban violence in Karachi, increased street crimes in central Punjab and militancy in Balochistan.
The socio-political instability leading to violence not only threatens national security but also regional (and at times global) security. The international community gets concerned that a nuclear state has limited or no writ over its violent groups and global and regional forces start doubting the state’s capability to protect its nuclear weapons. This leads to regional and global interference in the country’s affairs, which in turn provides a solid excuse and rationale for enhanced national security measures (and increased spending on them).