Poverty Bomb Threatens Pakistan

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The holy Muslim month of Ramadan brings upfront Pakistan’s hunger and poverty. In fact, these two social problems become the most visible face of the country during the month as people tend to give more charity and people from the low strata flock to the cities and towns looking for alms.

The holy month began in most of Pakistan on Aug 2. But beggars alone do not represent the food insecure.

48.6 percent of Pakistan’s 165 million people are food insecure, according to a 2010 report prepared by the Islamabad-based Sustainable Policy Development Institute (SDPI), World Food Programme (WFP) and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

“Food security in Pakistan has deteriorated since 2003. The conditions for food security are inadequate in 61 percent of the districts (80 out of 131)… This is a sharp increase from 2003, when conditions for food security were inadequate in 45 percent of the districts (54 out of 120),” said the report.

The situation is worst (67.7 percent) in the jihadi stronghold of Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Pakistan-Afghan border, followed by Baluchistan 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 “poverty and hunger are a security concern as a strong linkage between food security, hunger, poverty, and vulnerability to disasters can be established.”

Prices too high: Food insecurity is said to be 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, and this year 24.2 million tons of wheat was produced – more than the requirement – food insecurity has increased,” WFP spokesman Amjad Jamal was quoted as saying in an IRIN analysis.

“Government pricing policies, with the wheat price going up by 131 percent per 40kg (a bag), 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,” SDPI chief pointed out.

The government has a different take. Prices have shot up because of the move to bring Pakistani wheat prices in line with those in neighboring countries and the hike would “help curb smuggling”.

Another reason for the hike was encouragement to the wheat cultivators “so that the production target of 25 million tonnes could be met and food security for the country achieved”.

“‘Atta’ [wheat flour] cost less than Rs15 [17 US cents] per kilogram three years ago. It now costs over Rs.30 [35 cents],” Dilnoor Bibi, 40, a widow, told IRIN. 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.”

Global aid and development charity, Oxfam International, has warned, through an interactive map published on its website, that about 26 per cent of Pakistanis are undernourished. A survey conducted by the organization showed that nearly two-thirds of the population spends between 50 and 70 per cent of its income on food alone, with 57 per cent not eating the same things as they did two years ago and 44 per cent of the respondents saying that this was because it was too expensive.

Experts who work in the field see hunger everywhere. “Men, women and children all suffer malnourishment but the impact on the health of women and children is most acute,” says Shahid Awan, a nutritional officer at the UN Children’s Fund. He said 95,000 “severely malnutritioned” children had been detected in the country, and that many women suffered anemia and other deficiencies which also affected the health of children. “The diarrhea and other infections so many children suffer is just a symptom. The root-cause of the problem is acute malnutrition, and it is this we need to tackle urgently,” he said.

POVERTY BOMB

Poverty swelling army of beggars on Karachi streets says a headline in the news portal, One Pakistan. The report read: ‘Growing poverty and joblessness has resulted in sharp rise in the number of beggars on Karachi streets. Majority of these beggars are women and children, pestering citizens for alms in front of mosques, restaurants, eateries, departmental stores, big shops, bus stops and other public places. The number of beggars at busy traffic signals and road intersections has also swelled, significantly, depicting the ugly picture of deepening hunger and poverty in Pakistan. Experts say growing beggary is direct outcome of poverty, which is constantly increasing in Pakistan. They refer this phenomenon as ‘poverty bomb’.

According of Asian Development Bank (ADB), the main causes of poverty in Pakistan are: Poor Governance, Economic Determinants, Social Determinants, and Environmental Degradation and Poverty.

In its report titled, ‘Governance: Sound Development Management Policy’ ADB says poor governance is the key underlying cause of poverty in Pakistan. However, economic and social factors such as the slowdown in GDP growth in the last decade, and the persistence of a regressive social structure, stemming from the highly unequal distribution of land, have also contributed to the increase in poverty.

Another cause of poverty is rampant corruption. Corruption in Pakistan has become so rampant that the country has had a consistently poor ranking in the Corruption Perceptions Index. It was 143rd with a score of 2.3 out of 10 in 2010. Corruption both causes and thrives upon weaknesses in key economic, political and social institutions. Corruption deepens poverty and poverty deepens corruption.

Says an economist: ‘Growing number of poor people in Pakistan is a serious political indicator, which could result in Tunis and Egypt like unrests, if the government failed to adopt pro-poor policies and spend liberally on social development’.

The prospect of increased budget for social sector is remote as of now. In fact, the government has just slashed the budgetary outlays on the social sector programs, and Karachi daily, Dawn, lamented (March 15, 2011) that the fund allocation under Public Sector Development Program (PSDP) accounts for only 40 per cent of the total allocation in the first eight months and it was so meagre at Rs96.8 billion.

Consider the facts.

The government allocated Rs242 billion in local currency for the Public Sector Development Program; it was cut down to Rs150 billion by diverting about Rs.92 billion for deficit financing. Funds were allocated in the 2010-11 budget for 99 projects in the communication sector – mostly roads, highways and bridges, but none of them could get even a single rupee from the ministry of finance.

Thousands of small development schemes under the People’s Works Program for which Rs30 billion had been allocated also did not get even a single rupee in eight months. Allocations for infrastructure development have been curtailed drastically by 41 per cent to Rs.63 billion. Actual releases have so far (till March for which period details are available) stood at Rs36 billion, just 34.5 per cent of the original allocations. Social sector allocations that stood at Rs128 billion in the federal budget have been brought down to Rs.84 billion, a cut of 34 per cent.

“It is a sign of insanity to keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again, expecting different results,” says Dr Abid Qaiyum Suleri, Executive Director, Sustainable Development Policy Institute of Pakistan.

“‘It is high time we, as a nation, redefined our spending priorities in favor of ordinary citizens. If that is done our budget formulations would surely yield different results” he wrote in Dawn on May 29, 2011.

His advice appears to have had few takers thus far.