Explaining Hunger In Pakistan: Food Security In Historical And Contemporary Perspective

British colonialism decimated indigenous systems of food production in South Asia, and replaced largely subsistence polyculture farming with cash cropping. The subsequent consolidation of land ownership by feudal lords and the subjugated marketization of the ...

food security Pakistan

The hunger situation in Pakistan is the most abysmal in South Asia. According to one UNOCHA report, it is worse than even Afghanistan. Our number of stunted children – twelve million – is highest in the region; over half of our population, women and children particularly, experience some kind of deficiency, and according to the Global Hunger Index, our hunger problem is ‘serious’.

To say that such headlines were shocking would be a lie. After all, haven’t we all heard it before, from the day we first heard our elders talk about Pakistan? We are a poor country and most of our compatriots can barely afford one nutritious meal in a day. Therefore, our firefly is gratitude – its home must reside in the gardens of those who can eat comfortably.

Melancholic and spiritual as this portrayal is, it makes it all the more important to investigate the origins of such great lack. We must ask why. Why is it that this image was fit into our minds from the very beginning? Was our nation born poor? Were we always starving, even a thousand years ago? Is the white man right when he speaks of his burden – how he civilized the brown brute who was in need of rescue from his own savageness?

In answering such a question, our finger can never stray from colonialism: the single most destructive force the world has experienced in the past few centuries. Although there was no uniform system in the subcontinent with regards to cultivation, the process was not commercialized – at least in the modern sense. In many areas, subsistence farming was practiced; peasants grew their own food, and a variety of food was grown to cope with the nutritional needs of a household. Even with the caste system in place, the peasants were not entirely without protection; if nothing, they still had share in the harvest. They were still food secure.

The South Asian farmer encountered the newborn classes of middlemen, and feudal lords whose sole purpose was to extract as much rent as possible for the British and their own pockets.

Then, entered the colonial powers, and the British emerged as victors among them. With the introduction of commercial farming, indigenous systems of production were decimated on a massive scale. No longer did the poor peasant grow a variety of food for the dietary needs of his family unit. Instead, he was encouraged to grow the crops which would generate the most cash – and specialize in them

This may sound profitable to our ears, but one must note here that the farmer, independent in cultivation of his nutrition before, was now made forcibly dependent on the modern market. The South Asian farmer encountered the newborn classes of middlemen, and feudal lords whose sole purpose was to extract as much rent as possible for the British and their own pockets. With what meagre wages he had left for himself, he was now expected to buy other kinds of food from the market, and meet his dietary needs. Thus, he became subjected to price shocks, inflationary and interest mechanisms – all the while, sinking deeper into poverty himself.

Moreover, commercial farming had to be done on certain lines – making use of modern technology, always in search of innovation to maximize profit. Farmers who could not afford this new schema of production were forced to take loans, often from middlemen, who found even better grounds to exploit them, and entrap them in debt cycles. Stripped of autonomy, and in most cases, his share of profit, the peasant encountered true systematic alienation in Marxist terms for the first time. Life in pre-colonial times may have been difficult, but now, the hunger of liberal modernism was catching up – a unique monster in its own right.

It is no surprise, then, to see that while agricultural production was peaking in India, its peasants were pushed deeper into poverty and hunger. The common man was clearly not the beneficiary of the schemes of modernism and productivity erected to apparently civilize him. After all, he was prohibited to touch even salt from the seas. No, the cash was for the masters and their friends.

This backdrop of food insecurity still haunts us today. Pakistan, born an agrarian economy, was poor in part – and a very large part – because it was made that way by its colonial masters and their colluders – many of them in assemblies and governments. Most feudal families today were likely given land by the British in exchange for their cooperation. After all, dissidence never went unpunished in the British Empire, at least not when it came to the brown skin.

From deadly heatwaves to melting glaciers to lethal flash floods, we do not have the privilege of escaping global warming.

Today, Pakistan stands at its worst food security junction in history; the floods of 2022 decimated most of our crops and impacted 34 million people – to put this into perspective, farmland the size of Czech Republic was drowned.  Food shortages since the pandemic has resulted in an increase in overall price of food – although, Pakistan has had a relatively stable wheat production, we have been importing food since the lockdown. The economic crisis further compounds this inaccessibility; in March 2023 alone, food inflation stood at 47% in urban areas and has touched approximately 50.1% in rural. Moreover, IMF loans are expected to further devalue the rupee; farmers may hit targets and export, but at what cost? The government is not likely to give greater subsidies in production, anyway, given the structural adjustment policies it must now implement.

On top of this, there is a new hyena we must combat, which was never our hyena at all: the climate crisis. Although one may argue that the Earth’s climate has always been shifting, there is no doubt that human activity in the past century has greatly accelerated the pace of change – and worsened its impacts. And the brunt of this assault of nature is borne not by those who caused it, but those they impoverished. For instance, Pakistan emits less than 1% of the world’s emissions, and yet is the eighth most vulnerable nation to its consequences. From deadly heatwaves to melting glaciers to lethal flash floods, we do not have the privilege of escaping global warming.

It is essential, therefore, that we begin adapting to the crisis, seeing as we cannot mitigate it – not unless we join hands with all the countries in the world and revamp the entire global financial system – which would be idyllic, but unfortunately, we cannot afford to be idealists. Being the nation facing the brunt, we are forced to root our feet in realism and pragmatism.

Flood embankments, mass relocation of individuals from flood plains, strengthening disaster management, and improving water storage facilities seem to be key to this process. However, greater research and investigation is obviously needed – on a district-to-district level – to discover adaptation strategies most suited to the needs and climate of Pakistan. The hour is upon us, and we succeed only as long as we put the vulnerable first. Perhaps, that, too, is an idyllic dream.

Samaha Chaudhry is a student of law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.