Recently compiled data by the Federal Bureau of Statistics indicates that inflation, including food inflation, has been increasing sharply over these past months. This is very worrying news for those already unable to purchase sufficient food for their families, and unfortunately, there are many such people in our country. Pakistan is one of the seven nations where two-thirds of the world’s under-nourished people live.
Analysts are warning that inflation may remain high for some time to come. The government has also apparently indicated to the IMF that it is not possible to bring inflation down to the targeted 9.5 per cent during the current fiscal year. The current inflation hike is due to many factors, including the recent floods, the continued pressure on food prices, fiscal pressure due to the security situation, adjustment in utility prices, increase in transport charges, continued depreciation of the rupee and loss in productivity due to power shortages. Overcoming these multiple challenges is certainly not going to be an easy task.
The increased food prices will hit poor people the hardest, as they are already spending a major proportion of their household income on food. Even households that may have enough to eat, will now have less money leftover to cover health costs, or to invest in the education of their children.
While the recent devastating floods have seriously damaged crops, disrupted the food supply chain, and led to increasing food prices, the problem of food insecurity has actually been worsening since well before the floods occurred.
The Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Centre has collected work by prominent Pakistani food security experts and scholars which points to the multidimensional factors that have contributed to the growing food shortage in the country. This report squarely warns of a threat of widespread violence if immediate steps are not taken to feed the hungry. Such an impending threat should not be taken lightly, given that higher food prices are cited as one of the major reasons for the outbreak of violence in Haiti, Argentina and sub-Saharan Africa.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and World Food Programme agree on the severity of the hunger situation in Pakistan. However, these organisations have not done much to challenge international multilateral policies which have compelled developing countries like ours to produce export-led cash crops at the cost of diminishing national food security.
The government is defending itself by pointing out that higher food inflation is a global phenomenon. While it is true that the food crisis has hit many other developing countries as well due to economic problems which lie beyond the control of policy makers, there are several steps which may be taken to alleviate food insecurity domestically. Besides rethinking the benefits of top-heavy growth strategies which have undermined our food sovereignty over the longer term, more immediate measures are also required. Most urgently, we need public distribution schemes which can reach out more effectively to poor people. A limited number of utility stores are not enough to cater to the number of people who need subsidised food across the country. Well designed and varied forms of cash-for-work and food-stamp schemes could address this accessibility issue, and help tackle the existing food insecurity. It is also vital to tighten up regulatory mechanisms at different levels of the administration, to stop the ongoing smuggling, hoarding and profiteering while a significant proportion of the nation’s populace is literally starving.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 29th, 2010.