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Updated July 02, 2019

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

“PAKISTAN is stable now. That pressure [to stabilise the economy] has been relieved. Now I will go after them [the corrupt politicians],” said Imran Khan in an address to the nation. He asserted, “I’m making a high-powered inquiry commission with a one-point agenda: how did they raise the debt to Rs24,000 billion in 10 years?”

This was the prime minister’s contribution during the budget session, which is now over as the budget has been passed. All our elected ones must be relieved — they can stop quoting difficult figures and go back to what really matters — name-calling, production orders, corruption and incompetence.

Indeed, despite their great effort to show their concern for the people, the din in parliament rarely focused on the awam in depth. The budget was awam dushman because the current lot is incompetent or it was a tough one because those thrown out of power had made a hash of things, and hence difficult decisions had to be taken, but that was it. The backbreaking expenses came up time and again but only because it made it easier to criticise the treasury benches.

But if one is interested in the real story of the poverty-stricken awam, it is to be found away from parliament and in boring documents. For example, away from the rhetoric echoing in parliament, a recent survey on nutrition by the government of Pakistan itself reveals the state of our being.

“In Pakistan, four out of 10 children under five years of age are stunted while 17.7 per cent suffer from wasting. The double burden of malnutrition is becoming increasingly apparent, with almost one in three children underweight (28.9pc). The prevalence of overweight among children under five has almost doubled over seven years, increasing from five per cent in 2011 to 9.5pc in 2018,” say the 2018 report’s key findings. In other words, it seems that 40pc of our children are stunted and 5pc are overweight, leaving behind just around 50pc as what can perhaps be called healthy.

In case anyone still doesn’t know what stunting is (the prime minister used to mention it regularly in his early days in power, but not so much now) the WHO describes it as “impaired growth and development of children due to poor nutrition, repeated infection, and inadequate psychosocial stimulation. Children are defined as stunted if their height-for-age is more than two standard deviations below the WHO Child Growth Standards median.”

The real story of the poverty-stricken awam won’t be found in parliament.

The same international organisation describes wasting as a severe process of weight loss, which is often associated with acute starvation and/or severe disease.

But our leaders had other issues to fret about.

“They have spent Rs5,000bn only to place nameplates on projects initiated by us, whereas our government led by Nawaz Sharif initiated and completed power-generation projects, LNG projects, Bus Rapid Transport system, roads projects and many other plans,” Shahbaz Sharif said in parliament.

“Tell the country, when and who asked him [Prime Minister Imran Khan] for an NRO? Is there any witness? The country is very worried; Imran Khan says something but doesn’t give any evidence.

“I am saying this for the last time on the floor of the house: please tell this country who asked for an NRO, when did they ask and who is the witness?” he said during the budget.

But as the debate over the NRO continues — the important issue that it is —, let’s just read another snippet from the report on our awam. It tells us that, while the national figure for stunting is around 40pc, it varies from region to region — from 32.6pc in Islamabad Capital Territory to 48.3pc in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. But in Sindh, Balochistan, KP (including the region formerly known as Fata) and Gilgit-Baltistan, it is higher than the national average — over 40pc.

And our governance (which was so hotly debated recently) can be judged from the fact that while stunting improved from 1965 (48pc) to 1994 (36.3pc), from 2001 onwards it had been worsening — from 41.6pc to 43.7pc by 2011. In 2018, at 40.2pc, it remains at a global critical level.

The report warns that the average annual reduction rate is estimated at 0.5pc, too slow to significantly reduce the stunting rate in Pakistan.

But our great political debate is about when the next election should be.

“I am not a fortune-teller but Imran Khan will soon get his just deserts. Mid-term elections seem to be the answer to the miseries inflicted by the PTI government during the last 10 months,” Nawaz Sharif is reported to have said in jail.

We discuss elections as if it makes any difference to the awam; if the report is to be believed, our governments have been failing for much longer than the past 10 months.

Since the 1990s, the indicators have simply grown worse. We are told by the report that, since 1997, the prevalence of low weight for height among young children is on the rise, from 8.6pc in 1997 to 15.1pc in 2011 and 17.7pc in 2018. It is said that “acute malnutrition remains in a state of nutrition emergency. This is the highest rate of wasting in Pakistan’s history”.

Sindh has the worst figures for this form of malnutrition at 23.3pc, as does KP at 23.1pc, whereas GB and ICT have the lowest proportion of children with wasting, at 9.4pc and 12.1pc respectively.

But these figures can hardly catch the attention of our national-level leadership, which is obviously busy with national issues, such as the international conspiracy behind the budget.

On June 11, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari tweeted: “Today the PM of Pakistan danced on the floor of the house as his ministers introduced a PTIMF [sic] budget that increases taxes, inflation & unemployment. History will record how Imran danced as our economy burns.”

Sometimes, any sort of analysis or comment seems superfluous.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, July 2nd, 2019