IN a startling report, Unicef has compared the state of nutrition in post-flood Sindh with Chad and Niger. The report claims that hundreds of thousands of children are at risk due to alarming levels of malnutrition.
The malnutrition rate has been stated as standing at 23.1 per cent in northern Sindh and 21.2 per cent in the south. This has dwarfed the 15 per cent emergency threshold of the World Health Organisation and in flood-hit areas in particular, far exceeds the global average of 13.9 per cent. The report also reveals that 11.2 per cent of pregnant and lactating women suffer from malnutrition in northern Sindh and 10.2 per cent in the south.
The high rates of malnutrition may be shocking but they are not surprising. The people of Pakistan’s rural areas in general and Sindh in particular are chronic victims of malnourishment. The Unicef report has only validated earlier findings of poverty and hunger in Sindh’s rural areas. Nutrition deficiency that gives rise to child morbidity and mortality is rampant in many districts of the province. A report by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute entitled ‘Food Insecurity in Pakistan’ states that 43 per cent of Sindh’s districts are wheat-deficient. The map of such districts included four in northern Sindh and six in southern Sindh.
Meanwhile, according to a 2008 UN assessment, some 77 million Pakistanis were hungry and 44 million were underfed. Thirty eight per cent of children under the age of five and 24 per cent of the overall population were underweight. The UN placed Pakistan in the ‘alarming’ category in the Global Hunger Index. The greater proportion of these hunger-stricken masses belongs to the rural areas.
The recent floods exposed not only the ramshackle administrative machinery but also the miseries of the people living in remote areas that were abandoned by state institutions long ago. In these areas, landlords run a jirga-judiciary, schooling is an alien concept and health is a luxury that only the elite can afford. The situation was probably not too different even before the floods.
According to the 2006 Millennium Development Goals Report, no district in Sindh was among the top ten which saw a decrease in child mortality. Two districts of the province were among the bottom ten and two were among the most regressive districts under this indicator. The floods have compounded and brought into focus the miseries in these areas, for the pre-flood situation was also deplorable.
The floods cannot be thought of as the sole element responsible for malnutrition in these areas. Several other factors also played a role. In northern Sindh, tribal rivalries have ruined the local economies and livelihood resources. No one has analysed the human dimension of this orchestrated decimation of poor people in the area. Due to indiscriminate killings, people are forced to abandon agricultural activity and large swathes of land are deserted, resulting in local food shortages. According to data reported by a civil society organisation, the Indus Peoples’ Forum, some 30 tribal feuds have for years turned northern Sindh into a battleground. Abductions for ransom, highway robberies and other crimes have damaged the local economy which is mainly underpinned by agriculture. Consequently, local communities are facing a creeping disaster of poverty and dietary hardship. Widespread poverty in general has limited access to healthy diets, resulting in malnutrition. Particularly affected are women and children, who have to wait for residual crumbs in patriarchal family structures.
The political economy of hunger and poverty traces the genesis of these factors in poor governance and misplaced developmental priorities. Malnutrition is not a cause but an effect ensuing from a multitude of reasons. Human development has largely been a neglected area in our political system. Over time, our security appetite has outweighed development needs. Elusive ideological and geographical security concerns have caused this country to degenerate into a security state where the development needs of the citizenry find no place.
A recent report by the Social Policy and Development Centre, ‘Social Impact of the Security Crisis’, notes that the allocation for health and nutrition in the federal government’s public sector development program registered a marginal average annual increase of 0.4 per cent over the last five years. Meanwhile, security-related expenditure during last ten years registered an average growth of 20.6 per cent. These figures speak volumes about our misplaced priorities.
True, security is encroaching on the human development sphere across the world, and public expenditure exchequers are under unprecedented stress. The recent economic downturn and increasing commodity prices have further restricted access to food in underdeveloped societies. Ironically the countries neck-deep in the morass of poverty are often also the ones amassing arsenals to meet snowballing security challenges.
Pakistan is a shining star of this club, where human security is being sacrificed at the altar of security demands. Ever since the country became a surrogate battleground for international forces in the ’80s, developmental allocations have been declining. In the current year the country’s federal budget envisaged tax revenues in the vicinity of Rs1,600bn, which is just enough to meet the defence and debt servicing bill. This leaves vital areas of human development in the cold. Such a persistent trend of orphaned human development has perilous socio-political ramifications.
Natural catastrophes have rubbed salt into the wounds. In recent years, the country has suffered major earthquakes, cyclones and floods. Similar visitations across the globe have put further strain on international humanitarian aid. With dwindling local resources and decreasing international charity, malnutrition among women and children in a country such as Pakistan seems to be fait accompli. Only a citizen-centred decision making paradigm can address this situation and avert an impending disaster.
The writer is the chief executive of Strengthening Participatory Organisation, a non-profit organisation.