Making ends meet By Manzoor Chandio, Dawn, June 9, 2008
HUNGER has become one of the enduring features of the global landscape, sparking food riots in several Asian and African countries. The current high food prices have hit the poor people hardest, particularly urban net food buyers and rural non-food producers. Long lines of people outside utility stores show how the PPP government has failed to provide roti, even if we do not talk about its kapra and makan pledges.
There should have been an abundance of food for the people. Unfortunately, Pakistan has joined the ranks of food-deficient countries. Families who used to eat meals thrice a day are eating twice a day now and those who ate twice a day have had to cut down their food to one meal a day. Why has this happened in a country possessing the best lands and the world’s largest irrigation network? The present government is passing the buck to the previous one. That is a half truth.
No doubt the previous government sold 1.5m tons of wheat in the international market to allow exporters to earn some dollars. But the present government which claims to be an awami one has failed to act.
The price of flour is Rs18.50 per kg in Punjab, Rs30-32 in Sindh and Rs30 in Balochistan and the NWFP. Wheat flour is being sold in the black market in the federally-controlled tribal and northern areas. Why is a basic commodity being sold at different prices in one country? Isn’t this injustice?
In other countries, food prices increased in response to many factors, including higher energy and fertiliser costs, demand for biofuels and drought. But in this country, food prices have gone up because its own government sold off its wheat stock without calculating the risks.
Former prime minister Shaukat Aziz was so naïve that he sold wheat when he saw its price rising in the international market; he could not grasp the repercussions his move would have. Now the country is importing wheat from the international market at higher prices, increasing the trade deficit.
In 2004-05, the trade gap was three billion rupees. It is now $16.8bn. Surging crude oil and food prices in the international market pushed Pakistan’s trade deficit in the first 10 months of the current financial year, up by 50.78 per cent from $11.17bn recorded last year.
In 2004, oil price crossed the $50 a barrel mark for the first time. Today, it is $138 a barrel. The trade gap has widened as the import of consumer items like wheat, edible oil and fertilisers witness their highest increases.
There are very difficult days ahead for the poor. According to some figures, annually 100m tons of food crop are used for producing biofuel for rich people. Global warming, droughts, desertification, changing diets and expanding populations are the main factors driving up the prices of essential commodities throughout the world.
The poor are paying in the shape of food inflation for rich individuals who own oil-guzzling automobiles and industries. The import of luxury items like mobile phones and cars have also contributed significantly to the deficit. The flight of wheat from the country now is affecting low-income families who find it difficult to make two ends meet.
The use of vehicles has put more stress on oil resources and degraded the environment. The elite are consuming more oil than the poor people. There is a need for a fundamental, structural change in the food supply and agricultural production to end the crisis.
Also, there is need for building local agricultural capacities as most of the farmers are still using their bare hands and oxen to plough and harvest crops. Transporting harvests from villages to marketplaces is tough enough.
The government has to realise that farmers toiling from dawn to dusk will never be able to produce sufficient food without technological use and more tractors. They should be provided subsidised agricultural inputs for producing more food crops instead of cash crops. The farmers’ outputs should be procured through support prices. This would not only increase food availability but also bring some hope for the poorest of the poor. The budget should also provide some sort of relief to the most vulnerable ensuring that no child in this country goes to bed hungry.