Starving Pakistan hungry for change

Starving Pakistan hungry for change

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It’s as big a paradox and irony as any: Pakistan wastes enormous amounts of food every day as most of its poor citizens go to sleep each night ravenously hungry. That is a strong indictment of poor policy priority and management capacity of a state that is ignorant of its citizens’ basic needs. 

Recent research and media reports frame this paradox. On the latest Global Hunger Index 2020, Pakistan ranks a lowly 88 out of 107 non-developed countries indexed for worst hunger levels and bracketed in the “serious” category, a short distance from the famine category. On top of this, at least 36 million tons of food is wasted in Pakistan each year – 40 percent of all food produced by it.

This is downright criminal when considering that poverty in Pakistan in 2021 stands at a whopping 39.3 percent – over 80 million of the country’s 200 million population, according to the World Bank. This is an increase from 4.4 percent to 5.4 percent from the previous year – constituting over 2 million people (equivalent to the population of Islamabad) more people barely getting one meal a day added to the hunger levels.

The staggering horror of the correlation between hunger and food wastage can be best understood in stark numbers – as much food is wasted every single day in Pakistan as the full populations of the country’s two largest cities, Karachi and Lahore, plus Islamabad throwing away both their lunches and dinners!

The government is not entirely ignorant of this equation. Indeed, one of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s pet projects has been opening a string of soup kitchens in the larger cities where free basic meals are handed out to the hungry. But these number a few dozen only and constitute the proverbial drop in the bucket. This is a problem that cannot be tackled with meals but with management.

The staggering horror of the correlation between hunger and food wastage can be best understood in stark numbers – as much food is wasted every single day in Pakistan as the full populations of the country’s two largest cities, Karachi and Lahore, plus Islamabad throwing away both their lunches and dinners!

Adnan Rehmat

It is not beyond Pakistan’s management capacities to tackle its chronic hunger problem. After all, it has managed to be among one of only less than 10 countries on the planet with a prohibitively expensive nuclear arsenal. But why is a country’s nuclear muscle built on 80 million empty stomachs?

Things can’t continue the way they are. Hungry people are angry people. The welfare and dignity of Pakistani citizens need to be put at the heart of all policy and governance. The state needs to draft a new compact with its citizens that mandates marshalling of resources to attend to the basic needs of the citizens.

For starters Pakistan needs to break its taboo of not talking about hunger as much as it should and not prioritizing poverty. It needs to dramatically scale up its social security network for its poorest 80 million. While a decent system is already in place begun by prime minister Benazir Bhutto, continued by Nawaz Sharif and expanded by Imran Khan, it is still inadequate in terms of the people it reaches, finances and ownership of the provinces.

But even this is a medium-term solution. A longer-term answer to tackling hunger is pulling people out of poverty by expanding the space for economic activity as well as – in Pakistan’s context – urgent agriculture reforms to feed into a positive economic cycle that increases both productivity and income levels. Pakistan must reverse its status of being a net large-scale food importer by lifting up its broad agriculture base and generating adequate and affordable produce for national consumption.

Another answer is – even if it may at first glance seem tangential – is the urgency for educational reforms. Instead of an unproductive obsession with packing all subjects with religion and narrow interpretations of nationalism, the state must instead focus on optimizing curricula with science and skills-based subjects to allow knowledge to transcribe into economically productive skills.

Poverty, hunger, conservatism and fatalism are stalking – and strangulating – Pakistan. The country must reappropriate all its priorities, resources and energies to becoming an economic powerhouse, preferably premised on technology and information. And this entails undertaking an ideological shift from an unproductive security state that has nearly bankrupted Pakistan to a knowledge, industrial and agricultural economy that not only feeds and strengthens itself but also helps, not hinders, the world. 

*Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science.

Twitter: @adnanrehmat1

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