Friday, 16 September 2016

Busting the myth of a 'hatta katta' Pakistan

by The Collective’s Research to Action team

George Segal, Depression Bread Line sculpture, 1991
Photo credit: Wikipedia/Public domain pictures

No one in Pakistan sleeps on an empty stomach. Myth. There is plenty for everyone. Also a myth. Half of Pakistani households experienced hunger in the last year. Over 40 per cent of Pakistani children under five are malnourished. So why do we never hear about this? And what can we do to bring this to light in policy making and political processes? Haris Gazdar raised this at a panel discussion ‘Does Climate Change Worsen Hunger?’ at Habib University last month. The panel featured a keynote speech by Professor Hilal Elver, UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Food and reactions by Professor Richard Falk, director of Climate Change, Human Security and Democracy Project at the Orfalea Center, University of California Santa Barbara and Mr. Gazdar. The panel was moderated by Dr. Muhammad Haris, Assistant Professor, Social Development and Policy, at Habib University.

The concept of food security was introduced at the United Nations in the early 1990s by the United States government, Professor Elver explained. The definition was kept loose. The goal was for everyone to have sufficient amounts of culturally sensitive food available; one that pushed countries to industrialize agriculture further. In the Indian subcontinent too, this argument has been around for a while. Hunger was seen as tied to food shortage. Not true of course. Hunger is not about there not being enough food in the system. It is about certain pockets of people – mostly poor and marginalized - not being able to avail the food.

Another interesting point was raised by Professor Falk. Food security needs to be framed at a normative level. It should be linked to the framework of human rights, especially the right to food. We recently explored this in our project Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility. We asked respondents in Karachi and Dadu ‘who was responsible for providing the right to food?’. Respondents interpreted this question to mean something completely different though. They thought we were asking ‘who is responsible for feeding those who deserve to be fed?’. Who are those that ‘deserve to be fed’, according to them? They said men deserve to be fed because they do physical labour and earn for the family, women deserve to be fed because they are responsible for looking after the household, and children deserve to be fed because they are innocent and cannot fend for themselves. Most respondents believed it was the man’s job to get the food and the woman’s job to prepare it for consumption.

Perhaps this is because Pakistan does not incorporate the right to food to its people in the constitution, and the state does nothing to promote the idea that it is its job to make sure no one goes hungry. In the absence of that normative framework, households do not hold the state accountable for food. Instead they manage things best they can: distributing both the food and the responsibility of getting it.

In a democracy, even a burgeoning one such as ours, the political channel is critical to raise the issue of hunger, food security, and malnutrition in policy discourse. Myths must be dispelled. Legislative action must be pushed for. For many of us shaping the national discourse, experiences of hunger and severe malnutrition are alien. Unless the experience is made real and accessible, it will be hard to find those willing to lead the hard work of political change on this matter. We need to humanize the issue, to begin to imagine and talk about hunger as a real human experience, in order for it to gain traction within the political system.