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WORLD FOOD-DAY-PAKISTAN: Hunger, Poverty Initiatives Suspect

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Oct 16 2008 (IPS) - As Pakistan’s food crisis deepens, with an estimated 60 million people facing food insecurity, the GCAP (Global Call to Action Against Poverty) plans to hold rallies through the weekend demanding ‘’public accountability’’ even for hunger and poverty alleviation initiatives.

A busy 'sasti roti' (subsidised bread) outlet in Lahore.  Credit: Qaiser Khan/IPS

A busy 'sasti roti' (subsidised bread) outlet in Lahore. Credit: Qaiser Khan/IPS

‘’Our slogan is ‘hisab do, jawab do’ (accountability and answers from the government)," said Mahar Safdar Ali, former national coordinator of GCAP.

Even an initiative such as ‘sasti roti’ (cheap unleavened bread) being provided by the provincial government of Punjab is suspect. Questions are being asked about its sustainability on the one hand and, on the other, why it cannot be extended to provinces like Sindh.

Haris Gazdar, a Karachi-based economist, said: "We must know who is paying for it. Is it the government, farmers through lower procurement rate or other provinces through forced up market prices due to reduced supply from (largely farming) Punjab?"

"It is coming out from our own (provincial) budget. We are slashing down our non-developmental budget and the administrative expenditure significantly," said Sajjad Ahmed Bhutta, district coordination officer in Lahore, capital of the Punjab.

"Out of 5,000 tandoors (clay ovens) in Lahore, 3,200 are registered with the government’s scheme to sell the rotis at fixed rates,’’ said Bahadur Khan, president of the Nanbai (leavened bread-makers) Association of Lahore. The scheme has also been introduced in other big cities of the province including Rawalpindi, Faisalabad, Muzaffargarh, Sargodha, Liah, Dera Ghazi Khan, Bhakkar and a few others.

For its part the government is providing these tandoor shops with flour at a subsidised rate of Rs 250 (three US dollars) per kg when the same is selling in retail shops at Rs 333 (four dollars) per kg.

"But this solution can't go on indefinitely without fixing the local production problem which is in the hands of big feudals," said Najma Sadeque, a senior journalist and development expert. "It also means there was no major physical wheat shortage in the first place.’’

Many believe that it was the food crisis more than terrorism or anything else that proved to be former president Pervez Musharraf’s undoing at the February elections where irate voters trounced the party that backed him.

Musharraf appeared aware of the brewing crisis and, during the last two years of his nearly nine years in power, resorted to dishing out massive subsidies on wheat and other staples that economists say the country is still paying for.

Musharraf’s successor, President Asif Ali Zardari, is now trying his best to convince Pakistanis that his government is capable of steering the country out of the mess – mainly by seeking a bailout worth 10 billion dollars and stave off bankruptcy.

Zardari is pinning hopes on a meeting in Abu Dhabi, later this month or early next, of the ‘Friends of Pakistan,’ a consortium which includes the United Arab Emirates, China, Japan, the United States and Europe.

The World Bank has pledged 1.4 billion dollars in aid and the Asian Development Bank has already released 500 million dollars as the first tranche. And the U.S. has pledged to arrange, through the World Food Programme (WFP) and other U.N. agencies, approximately 11,000 metric tonnes of wheat for over 1.6 million Pakistanis, starting this month.

Zardari has unveiled his own subsidy scheme, a 450 million dollar fund to support the poor, called the Benazir Income Support Programme. According to Ali, if implemented in its true spirit, the scheme will benefit three million people (14 percent of the population in the low income group). "But only if it is carried out by people who are honest."

"It’s not that we lack resources; what we need is a strong political will to overcome our economic crisis," said Ali. Ali, who is campaign coordinator United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in Pakistan, said hunger can adversely impact labour productivity, health, education and overall economic growth.

"Managing our resources astutely and working towards forming pro-people policies without corruption are the only way out of this mess."

Zardari, for his part, has promised "complete transparency" and said that the programme would be free of "political affiliations".

"For over a year we have been busy bickering over like whether Musharraf should or should not doff his uniform, the reinstatement of the chief justice and now parliament is busy with national security. No doubt it is a serious challenge but when will the common man’s plight be noticed?" asked Ali.

What is needed is ‘’public accountability, just governance, alleviation of poverty by providing education to all, food for all, environment-friendly initiatives to boost industry and agriculture, lowered spending on defence and also taking the nation into confidence when securing foreign loans,’’ argued Ali.

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