RISK OF A DISASTER OF HUNGER Allah Nawaz Samo

When size, duration, severity and intensity of a calamity exceed beyond the resilience capacity of affected population along with failure of coping mechanisms, a situation like disaster starts to develop. There are strong indications that it would be beyond the capacity of over 40 percent of the total households in our country to meet minimum level of subsistence in the case if current prices of food remain unstable or tend to rise during the next two months. This nearly half of the population which is already experiencing substantial food deficits is at the serious risk of falling into state of absolute hunger. Ironically, all this is happening not in the backdrop of any natural calamity, drought or civil war. It follows a tenure in which policy makers always felt pleasure to claim unprecedented economic growth. The policies designed to achieve and sustain this growth however, left the poor with very limited choices for securing subsistence level of livelihood. What was attained in the name of high growth rate was simply an arrangement of ‘capital-augmenting and labour displacing’, something indicative of ‘growth without development. The majority of the poor affected by such policy maneuverings belongs to stratum of landless crop sharers and daily wage labourers who support large families at low average per capita income levels. Most of these people live in the areas not well serviced by physical infrastructure and therefore their capability to take advantage of market opportunities is severely curtailed. Households belonging to this lowest income quartile spend as much as 91 per cent of their consumption budget on food. The current surge in prices poses real risk of starvation to this group. Referring to their extreme vulnerability around the world, IMF Director, Domimique Strauss Kahn issued a warning in recent world bank spring meeting, of ‘terrible impact’ and ‘dire consequences’ as ‘ hundreds of thousands of (such) people will be starving’. The situation in 36 countries including Pakistan may lead to riots. It seems strange that warning of starvation in new millennium underlines the same reason which was cited by a British economist Arnold to explain the food crisis that surfaced in southern India in September 1918. In his report on ‘grain riots’ Arnold wrote, ‘looting and rioting were expression of the panic and anger felt by the poor classes when faced with abrupt price rises or sudden disappearance of food grain from bazaars while large quantities of grain were known to be stacked in warehouses or barges and in railway yards ready for export elsewhere.’ The same ignominious practice was allowed to take place in Bengal Famine of 1942-43. Those with command over available food stock made grain a profiting commodity rendering about 3 million poor masses to starve and eventually die. The government policies espoused to the export of grain and thereby averted the risk of hunger in Britain along with extending benefit to affluent traders on the cost of poor Indians. History

records Bengal Famine of 1943 as ‘boom famine’ due to these particular features of moral degradation and ethical bankruptcy. In the subsequent years, colonial powers came under severe criticism from press and intelligentsia for their callousness and criminal apathy. It was realized across every segment of the society that states had failed miserably in protecting citizen’s basic right of food for survival. The wide spread public anger compelled world powers to opt for a collective strategy to prevent absolute hunger and starvation. Agriculture was incorporated as one of the key sectors in global development agenda. A big portion of international aid was diverted to newly independent and developing countries to ensure food security. As a result, most of these countries provided subsidies to growers, built basic infrastructure and introduced new affordable technologies to improve quality and quantity of production. The green revolution of sixties further reinforced these efforts through mechanization, electrification and extension of canals to far-flung rural areas. The effects of such policy measures can be gauged by the fact that agriculture sector was contributing 60 percent to GDP of Pakistan in 1951, which declined to 21 percent in 2007. Not only that, prices of cereals and other food, in real terms, had been in decline, both in the shops of local market and on world markets from 60s to 80s. With the onset of new millennium, world food market witnessed two radical changes; shift in grain consumption pattern and conversion of cereals into Ethanol- a form of bio-fuel. In 2000 around 15 million tones of maize crop in America was turned into ethanol; this year the quantity is likely to be 85 million tones. This demand of America’s ethanol programme alone account for over half the world’s unmet need for cereals. Besides, in most of the developing countries including Pakistan, demand for meat has doubled as compared to that of in 80s, leading to sharp rise in consumption of grain as animal feed. Both of these changes, give rise record price hike at a time not of scarcity but of abundance of food. The policy makers in Pakistan, during last five years, either ignored or conveniently overlooked to all these happenings. In February, 2007, the price of maize attained its all time peak, when exceeded $175 a tonne in world market. In September, 2007, the world price of wheat rose to over $ 400 a tonne, the highest ever recorded. By mid of 2007, the world food prices jumped by 75 percent and food-price index touched its unprecedented highest level. Responding to the gravity of situation, Russia and Venezuela imposed controls on food prices. China and Brazil invoked their contingency plans. However, authorities in our country did not bother to take any preparedness measure to tackle the situation even on this eleventh hour. Now when, we are included in 36 countries facing the risk of ‘food riots’, the call from world experts is, ‘to address this (crisis) not just as an immediate emergency but also in the medium term for development.’ The World Bank, in a report circulated in its recent spring meeting, clearly points out ‘Pakistan did not have a wide spread social assistance programme targeting the poorest of poor.’ The policy objective in current scenario, therefore, need to include a short term relief and recovery package for poor masses in

order to avert the risk of disaster of hunger. At the same time, it also needs to have medium to long term strategies and safety nets to prevent recurrences of food crisis in coming years. The conditional cash transfers through strategies like cash-for-food and food-for-work have provided immediate relief and recovery to many poor in developing countries. The rate of success, however, depends on efficiency, transparency and capacity of available institutional setup. Further more, identifying right people who deserve aid and then getting access to them overcoming all social biases and political preferences tends to be major challenges. Notwithstanding all the obstacles, the approach has proved its value and worth in averting some of the worst hunger disasters in Africa and South Asia. For long term, we need to transform the poor and vulnerable class to a cadre of small growers with their own piece of land. This would reduce poverty, create employment, and increase productivity. America and Europe have achieved current levels of food security by making this possible in late sixties. It is high time for us to embark on such a noble mission. The first step towards this mission requires land reforms-something we aspired for since seventies but not achieved yet. The writer is a development professional and can be reached at nsamoo@gmail.com.

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