LAHORE: Saleem-ud-Din, 35, is happy today. The disabled beggar has been able to buy some cooked lentils as well as six `rotis' for his family of six.
"Today we will have a feast. Usually we share two or three `rotis', at best, but someone put a Rs.100 (US$1.17) note in my bowl, and along with the other smaller notes and coins, it is enough to buy a proper meal," Saleem said according to a report by IRIN, a UN information unit.
Beggars like Saleem represent the most visible face of hunger and poverty. Their precise number is unknown but it is estimated to run into millions, according to media reports. The number tends to rise in major cities before Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, which began in most of the country on August 2 and during which people tend to give more charity. Food insecurity, however, does not plague beggars alone.
According to a 2010 report by the Islamabad-based Sustainable Policy Development Institute (SDPI) in partnership with the World Food Program (WFP) and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, 48.6 percent of Pakistan's 165 million people are food insecure. "Food security in Pakistan has deteriorated since 2003. The conditions for food security are inadequate in 61 percent [of] districts (80 out of 131). This is a sharp increase from 2003, when conditions for food security were inadequate in 45 percent of districts (54 out of 120)," said the report.
The food security situation is worst (67.7 percent) in the conflict-ridden Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Pakistan-Afghan border, followed by Balochistan Province (61.2 percent): "Although it is difficult to develop conclusive empirical proof, the strong overlap of food insecurity and militancy provides considerable evidence of a potential nexus."
SDPI head Abid Qaiyum Suleri told the media that "poverty and hunger are a security concern as a strong linkage between food security, hunger, poverty, and vulnerability to disasters can be established."
Food insecurity, agencies say, is linked to prices rather than availability. "Many people have simply no access to food because of their low income levels. Although Pakistan is producing sufficient food, (this year 24.2 million tons of wheat were produced - more than the requirement) food insecurity has increased," WFP spokesman Amjad Jamal said. "Government pricing policies, with the wheat price going up by 131 percent per 40kg, from Rs.550 (US$6.47) to Rs.950 (US$111.17), have impacted 35 percent of the population in urban areas and a wide range of consumers in rural areas, where 40 percent of households depend on wages and salaries, 16 percent on non-agricultural activities and 5 percent on foreign remittances.
All these groups have been severely hit by the price hike," he added. The Prime Minister said the reasons for the price increase were "to encourage wheat cultivation so that the production target of 25 million tons could be met and food security for the country achieved". He said the move, by bringing Pakistani wheat prices into line with those in neighboring countries, would "help curb smuggling".
`Atta' (wheat flour) cost less than Rs15 (17 US cents) per kilogram three years ago. It now costs over Rs.30 (35 cents)," said Dilnoor Bibi, a 40 year-old widow. She said that on her income of Rs.5,000 ($58.82) a month as a washerwoman, she is "barely able to feed my three children, and doctors say my three-year-old, who is often sick, is severely underweight and needs more food which I cannot provide."
Experts who work in the field see hunger everywhere. "Men, women and children all suffer [from] malnourishment but the impact on the health of women and children is most acute," Shahid Awan, a nutritional officer at the UN Children's Fund, told IRIN.
He said 95,000 "severely malnourished" children had been detected in the country, and that many women suffered anemia and other deficiencies which also affected the health of their children. "The diarrhea and other infections that so many children suffer from is just a symptom. The root-cause of the problem is acute malnutrition, and it is this we need to tackle urgently," he said.