Empty stomachs, hollow speech

July 18, 2019

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FOR some, their everyday relationship with food is so taken for granted that it is barely given a second thought. But while access to food is a universal human right for all, millions are deprived of basic nourishment that affects every aspect of the quality of life as well as the nation’s economy, health indicators and mortality rates. It is unfortunate that despite being one of the most pressing issues of our times, we rarely hear about food insecurity in mainstream public discourse; celebrity news or discussions on political sleaze take precedence. According to a joint report published recently by the World Health Organisation, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, Unicef and the World Food Programme, hunger is on the rise in many parts of the world. The report states that over 820m people were deprived of a healthy and balanced meal in 2018, compared to 811m in 2017. The worst-hit regions are in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. (Incidentally, in a world of great disparity, obesity too is on the rise in other parts of the globe, presenting its own sets of challenges).

In the largest continent, the South Asian region fares particularly poorly, with widespread malnutrition, stunting and a host of other mental and physical impairments which are largely blamed on poverty, lack of awareness, poor access to what constitutes nutritious food and the secondary status of women in household decision-making. Pakistan is regarded as a food-surplus country and is a significant producer of wheat. Yet, much of its population continues to suffer from food insecurity. As noted by the renowned economist Amartya Sen, this is because hunger has little to do with food production and everything to do with the failure of imagination and deficient policymaking of those in power. Despite efforts to increase income and daily wages, inflation is recorded to be at its highest in eight years, leading to predictions of a worsening situation in the near future. There have also been no successful controls on the country’s growing population, which directly affects its overall poverty rates.

The State Bank of Pakistan has now come out with a detailed report that sheds light on food disparities in the various provinces and regions. While Gilgit-Baltistan and KP fare relatively well — with 80pc and 70pc of the households surveyed considered food secure — the situation in Sindh and Balochistan is depressing, to say the least. Nearly half of Balochistan’s households face mild to severe food insecurity — with 30pc facing chronic hunger. While the political and social marginalisation of the province is no secret, the findings do confirm some of the worst fears of observers and should ring alarm bells in the corridors of power. As long as there is hunger, there will be no peace — and progress will be a hollow dream.

Published in Dawn, July 18th, 2019