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Life for all: nourished now & forever? July 5, 2014

Posted by ruthgamble in : Guest authors, Pakistan , trackback

A Ercelan and Muhammad Ali Shah

In Pakistan, the right of expression is being increasingly eroded by actual assassinations and threats of assassination carried out by those who trade in religious militarism. Such acts of terrorism should not succeed in deflecting attention from increasing economic vulnerability. This is the reason for the following discussion.

This year, 2014 marks a decade for the UN Right to Food Guidelines. Their report for this year states in part that:

“[T]he right to food remains one of the most frequently violated of all human rights.  As such, the 41st session [of the UN] is an opportunity to generate a renewed political commitment towards advancing the implementation of the right to adequate food, as well as towards addressing the most important challenges in that regard, including: ensuring the primacy of human rights, human rights accountability, and human rights coherence at all levels.”

Yet, South Asian children and their mothers suffer endlessly; too many have even died because of hunger and malnutrition. Pakistan’s low and sluggish labour compensation accompanied by its high and rising prices for goods and services has even forced its Supreme Court to ponder the meaning of “dignified survival”. Yet despite their acknowledgement of widespread hunger, the Supreme Court did not seriously admonish the authorities for creating the causes of this hunger nor hold them responsible for its result, the untimely annual termination of hundreds of thousands of lives. This despite the fact that in Pakistan today, hunger and malnutrition kill vastly more people than the wars of terror.

Assisted by the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council and the National Agricultural Research Centre (PARC-NARC), federal bureaucrats publicised a Food Security Policy in 2013 (www.mnfsr.gov.pk). Unfortunately, however, despite support from Islamabad, the policies this report outlined, even those that were time-bound are still awaiting final approval from provincial governments. As a further insult to those injured by present government policies, both levels of government still hinder food security. Indeed many of their actions—subsidy reduction, food export incentives, the construction of mega dams, the construction of coal and nuclear energy plants, and the creation of a brigade to protect Islamabad—suggest that the food security of all citizens continues to be a lower priority for them than fiscal rectitude and militarisation. What else emboldens them to sanction sugar mills to export half a million tons of sugar when this amounts to the virtual exportation of water that could be used for more nutritious crops such as cereals and pulses?

With these kinds of policies, the goal of Zero Hunger appears distant. It would require, for example, fiscal constraints that seem implausible in the face of rising profits for the Independent Power Projects (IPP), subsidised power guzzlers, BMWs for the PM, and mounting public debt.  A recent “instruction” to finalise the food security policy came from Finance Minister Dar; this was no accident, Perhaps not surprisingly, the “support” offered to the policy’s drafters by the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) has had a negligible impact on their understanding of international commitments and obligations.

The policy is, generally, dismal. It has, however, one small redeeming feature: it does not contain a plea for more dams. But ominously, the construction of additional mega-dams does seem to be a settled issue. These dams may help create water storage that avoids small floods in the short term, but they also heighten vulnerability to catastrophic damage. What is more, the upstream water storage they create dilutes geographical autonomy and reduces downstream food security.  This is exemplified by the dam operators’ persistent refusal to provide minimal environmental flows of water and silt to the downstream delta.

We warmly welcome the report’s reference to provincial action as the core of food security; but are concerned that it has ignored the Council of Common Interests. If Panjab bans the export of wheat to Sindh, should Sindh follow by banning the same of energy to the Panjab? Another element of the report that is disturbing is its description of food security as an expert exercise, rather than as political deliberations that realise citizens’ rights.

The policy further emphasises the expansion of agricultural production, with the subsequent re-distribution (modalities that are left unexplained) of a larger pie. Why has the report ignored the possibility of substantial asset redistribution as a method to directly increase food security for small farmers? Instead it foreshadows the surely not unintended consequence of the elite’s further domination of natural resources, which will give them the ability to extract greater rents from even a limited redistribution.

Food entitlements will therefore remain inequitable; they will continue to be excessively vulnerable and provided at inadequate levels. It is no accident that the Sindh government opposes the implementation of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s land reforms. The Sindh Assembly has been oppressively callous in its removal of any bar to forced labour by sharecroppers. In doing so it has created the cause for debt bondage to spread. Will this become the “pound of flesh” for alleviating hunger?

Another profoundly important topic the policy ignores is ecological sustainability; an omission that will ensure chronic hunger over generations. Instead it relies on the “trickle-down approach”, which has proved to be the very cause of persistent, mass hunger. It is shameful that such a neo-liberal approach will remain unrevoked in the UN Year of Family Farming.

Is Big Better?

The Policy exhibits flawed vision and impotent analysis. It services globalism, suggesting that high growth will eliminate mass poverty. This growth, it suggests, will come “mainly from middle to large farmers who have the investment and risk bearing capacity to diversify and innovate.” It makes no mention of state investments in raising the productivity of impoverished subsistence and small farmers. It suggests targeting will “ensure food and nutrition security for all.” Presumably this will only be accomplished by collecting taxes from subsidised, large farmers. Do drafters really believe that incomes can be taxed equitably? How can this “targeting” help very large numbers of the undernourished?

It does suggest that the: “Central focus of the Policy [is] to achieve sustainable growth in the productivity of major crops as well as the promotion of high value agriculture including horticulture, fisheries and livestock.” But it leaves unexplained how this will: “increase the economic access to food for the socially deprived communities of the marginal areas.” How will higher production volume and value reduce hunger in the future when past growth in output and income per capita have not been sufficient to create zero hunger? How do real wages of the landless rise rapidly if they have not done so in past years of high economic growth? When does a living wage become reality if the state does not enforce even a low minimum wage? Guaranteed employment at a living wage for all men and women could do this, but there is no such action envisaged by this Policy.

While not providing an ecologically sustainable approach, the government’s policy does, however, seem happy to use climate change as a convenient defence for all ills, even when state policies appear to be exacerbating it. An example of the policy’s use of climate change is its use of this change to explain the excessive extraction of ground water, and concordant influx of seawater that has reduced food production in coastal Sindh. Is this meant to deny the role of government—federal as well as provincial—in denying environmentally adequate flows of freshwater? Is it meant to deny their role in expanding flows of highly saline and toxic effluent into the delta? Is it meant to deny their privileging of upstream splurges through subsidised water, fertiliser and pesticides?

Industrial and trade policy shamelessly subsidise water-guzzling exports such as processed textiles, and crops like sugar and fruit. Since climate change is created by the release of carbon into the atmosphere, why doesn’t the government’s policy on food security mention its energy policy? Why doesn’t it mention government plans to significantly expand coal power plants across the country? If we are “water stressed”, why doesn’t the Policy note the increasing use of fresh water in nuclear powered (and China funded) turbines at Chashma? When food security is the goal, why don’t energy planners realise the ecological degradation imposed by intakes of living water and expulsions of de-nutrified, polluted water in energy production and much industry? Ignorance—of solar and wind energy; reducing waste; recycling water; managing demand—is not a defence.


After discussing agriculture, the Policy turns to food security. Oddly, this section begins with a statement that suggests the inadequacy of its own sectorial strategy! It warns that:

” A major change is also needed in the overall vision of agriculture development which needs to move beyond simply increasing production to a more livelihood and people-centric approach … Hunger and malnutrition remain major problems despite the fact that the Pakistani constitution (Art 38) enshrines [the] right to food.”

Yet despite outlining this failing, the Policy does not describe it in any more detail. Instead it resorts to platitudes. “Innovation and technology need to play a key role,” it suggests, “combined with improved governance and institutional reforms that will ensure proper and sustainable management of the country’s physical, human and social capital.”

Or it blame shifts to the provinces, suggesting they should be “Accelerating technology generation and dissemination” and rationalising land markets to facilitate (or perhaps corporate?) large farms. Why doesn’t it recommend land reforms that realize economies of scale through cooperatives? Why are they fooled by written tenancy agreements instead of granting land to its tillers?

The Policy does advocate the reform of food procurement and distribution, but its suggestion that zero hunger can be achieved promptly and securely by relying on bureaucratically determined and implemented criteria in “score-cards” insults those reading it. It then goes on to suggest that targeting will also be used to generate income for the poor. So why has the state failed to do this so far?

It is also extremely deficit in another area. Nutritionally effective food intake requires clean water (and sanitation). This was emphasised by the FAO report on Food Insecurity. Tharparkar, or any of the previously flooded areas should be investigated in this regard. And an alternative draft Policy must not repeat the gross error of ignoring this integral synergy.

At other points, the Policy defies credulity. At one point, for example, it suggests that food and nutrition security will be achieved “through small-scale livestock activities and kitchen gardening, as well as by use of micro-nutrient fertilizers.” It also suggests that this change will be implemented “Through high profile media and other campaigns and through [the] mainstreaming of nutrition in academic and training institutions.” Elsewhere, it describes a National Flagship Project called the “Promotion of High Value Crops”. This project is focused on ecologically detrimental aqua-culture. It also fails to describe how “promoting large-scale foreign investment” will reduce food insecurity.

There is, however, one fundamentally positive element within the report: the  “Development of Marginal and Fragile Areas,” which will include support for rain water harvesting and conservation, as well as improvements in the protection and productivity of range lands. Is this the government promoting corporate farming?

What Next?

Public consultations on this policy need to be informed by rights-based analysis. One such application is agro-ecology, which has been illustrated in an OXFAM note. Beyond the FAO Guidelines for Food Security, it provides a framework to inform the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food. There is also the possibility that provinces can put the federal government to shame by proposing an effective guide to Food Sovereignty? They all could  learn from Haris Gazdar, who wrote about this in a dedicated issue of the IDS (Sussex) Bulletin.

The authors thank Zeenia Shaukat (PILER) and Jamil Junejo (PFF) for their review. The World Rural Forum and the FIAN-FAO Forum of Right to Food have contributed to clarity in solidarity with peasants. Comments are invited: awarakhi@yahoo.com


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