The state of poverty and food sovereignty in South Asia

Post Source: By Farooq Tariq


(The paper was read at the South Asian parliamentary round table Caucus held in Islamabad in 23-24th January 2011)


The Parliamentary Round Table Caucus on food sovereignty in cooperation with the South Asia Alliance for Poverty Eradication (SAAPE) thematic group on Food Sovereignty, Climate Change, Livelihood and Employment is particularly important after the recent flood’s devastating impact on Pakistan agriculture and on peasants. The devastation caused by recent floods has reached alarming proportions. Human sufferings have been aggravated by severe blows dealt to the agricultural sector, which will have longer-term impacts. Standing crops have been washed away and millions of livestock lost. Agriculture is the prime source of income in major parts of the flood-affected areas and the losses incurred have had a direct effect on the livelihoods of the peasants. The losses sustained by the agricultural sector will also worsen food insecurity situation across the country with more acute effects in those flood affected.

The scale of the human tragedy is enormous. To put it in some perspective, the flood waters submerged one-fifth of Pakistan; culminating in 1600 dead, about 20 million people displaced and 17 million acres of farmland destroyed. Pakistan’s towns, villages, crops, livestock, personal possessions and infrastructure were completely washed away. The flood waters destroyed the country’s infrastructure like bridges, irrigation canals, homes, roads and railway tracks and six power plants that supply electricity to factories. Pakistan prime agricultural regions, the highly fertile and productive Punjab, Sindh and Khaiber Pukhtoon Khawa were completely underwater.

Tragically the flood hit the most fertile food growing areas. Gilgit, Swat, Charsada, Swabi, Nowshera to Larkana, Dadu and Matiari are food growing pockets and contribute a reasonable share in country’s food and grain economy. Major losses of crops, orchards, cattle, fodder, cotton and other major cash crops had a serious setback on the economy. This will create food scarcity and insecurity for many in coming months.

In a country where a quarter of the economy is dependent on agriculture for food and jobs, it is obvious that the small peasants, landless agriculture workers and small farmers have been the main victim. The scarcity in food is a major challenge now after three months of flood. The prices of food items are soaring every day and no compensation is been paid to the workers and peasants effected by this devastating floods as compare to the losses they have suffered. With large scale damage to agriculture and billions of dollars worth of crops and livestock destroyed, the supply of food decreased.

The recent devastating flood has once again uncovered the severe poverty that peoples of Pakistan are facing. The whole property of many hundreds of thousands fleeing from their mud homes in a hurry was just a trunk, few clothes and pottery and may be a donkey, cow or a buffalo.

Food is essential to life. Food not only provides the basic sustenance for physical survival and nutrition for healthy human existence; food is also a key element of people’s culture.

The world now produces enough food to feed everyone, and yet millions of people, including 6 million children under the age of five, die each year as a result of hunger and chronic malnutrition. Every day the toll is 25,000 deaths from hunger. This number does not include preventable deaths from illnesses related to malnutrition and poverty.

The much-touted claims of economic growth and progress by successive civilian and military governments exclude millions of people languishing in hopeless poverty. This is the situation persistent in all South Asian Countries without exception. Under the influence of Neo liberal formulations, no longer the governments talk of “abolition” or “elimination” of poverty but only of its “alleviation”.  The increase in numbers of poor is common in all countries.

According to Human Development Report 2009, Afghanistan is ranked on 132 out of 182 countries; Bangladesh is on 112, Pakistan on 101 and Nepal on 99th position. This number only indicates the “absolute poor”-those who are unable to meet their daily nutritional requirements calculated in terms of calories. The number of poor would be far higher if other aspects of a dignified quality of life are considered. Large sections of the population –easily the majority- are deprived of basic necessities of life such as adequate shelter and housing, clothing, education and health services etc. They have almost no access to resources. Studies now indicate that the problem of poverty, even in countries like India that boasts of substantial economic growth, is persistent.

According to Pakistan Planning Commission (2009), poverty rate has jumped from 23.9 to 37.5 percent from 2005 to 2008. The commission has estimated that in 2005, there were 35.5 million people living below the poverty line but in 2008 their number increased to over 64 million. It is stated that over 64 million people, out of 160 million populations has plunged into the poverty pool. The numbers have been increased considerably after the recent floods. Although, no data in this regard is available however, it is obvious that the scale of devastating has effected mostly “the poor of the poor”. Consequently, unemployment has also increased. Moreover, 40 percent of the urban population lives in slum areas. Reduction in social sector spending is increasing poverty and has reduced the standard of living in the country. It is estimated that at least 43 Billion Dollars will be needed to rebuild the economic and infrastructural loss because of flood. The United Nation appeal to raise 2 Billion Dollars for flood affectees, if successful, will make only a diminutive difference.
However, there is a race among the governments of South Asia to prove statistically a decline in poverty.  States, Governments and some time even non governmental agencies particularly associated with privileged groups rush to tell us that poverty is on decline. Under General Musharaf dictatorship, we heard many times how things are changing in favor of the poor and that the per capita income is on ever increasing trends. This is problematic proposition, because the basis on which imaginary income “poverty line” is calculated is done arbitrarily and can be conveniently manipulated.

Poverty was defined by official sources in terms of ability /capacity of a person to purchase the minimum food stuff necessary to provide the minimum numbers of calories required to stay alive. The numbers of calories was scaled down from the international standards of 2400 per day to suit condition of climate and of body build in South Asia to 2100 per day. Calories count and enumeration of numbers can only be useful for statistical purpose and not for the real lives of the millions. Unfortunately the “growth and progress” debate in several South Asian countries tend to hide the poor and vulnerable people.

We recognize that food and agriculture is fundamental for the people. Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation. It offers a strategy to resist and dismantle the current corporate trade and food regime, and directions for food, farming, pastoral and fisheries systems determined by local producers.

Food sovereignty prioritizes local and national economies and markets and empowers peasant and family farmer-driven agriculture, artisanal fishing, pastoralist-led grazing, and food production, distribution and consumption based on environmental, social and economic sustainability. It ensures that the rights to use and manage our lands, territories, waters, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those of us who produce food. Food sovereignty implies new social relations free of oppression and inequality between men and women, peoples, racial groups, social classes and generations.

The South Asian economies are structurally adjusted by neo liberal orthodoxy, directing towards a closer integration with the world market and economy. One sees increased operations of global capital within these countries with minimum or no restriction and free flow of finance capital with the intervention World Bank, IMF and WTO. This has not resulted in reduction of eradication poverty, on the contrary, it has increased the numbers of poor and accompanied by disparity. The disparity is very glaring in recent years in all the South Asian countries especially in Pakistan. A section of society, somewhat wider than the traditional elite, enjoys unprecedented level of incomes in these countries.

Neo liberalism has deprived people of their basic rights to food, education, jobs: aggravated hunger and death on account of starvation and plunder of the earth of all its natural resources. The policies persuaded by the rulers of the South Asian countries have created conditions of exclusion, marginalization and denial of rights, justice and democratic freedom to the majority of the people.  

South Asia is a region dominated by millions of peasants who have been struggling against all forms of exploitations. The condition of peasants in the region has gone bad to worse. The governments of the region always claim that, they represent the general peasants and people and also claim that, they have given toppriority to unemployment, hunger and poverty reduction, in their political programs. That is a false notion.

Peasants  in the  region are  exploited,  discriminated  and  even  tortured  by  the feudal  and landlords in the villages. In Pakistan, the institution of military has also become part of feudal class. They own agriculture land to an extent not seen in other South Asian countries. They have refused to grant the ownership to the tenants working over 100 years and have resorted to all sort of repression when the tenants revolted for land rights.
The current economic trends have plunged the agriculture, which is the source of the income for the majority in these countries, into a crisis and particularly the cultivating peasantry in deep crisis. The feudal system remains intact in some major countries of South Asia, thus paving the way for more bonded labour and slavery.  All the tasks of modernizing the society remain unsolved and the ruling elite have failed miserably in developing the countries on more just and democratic basis. The achievement of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in South Asia are minimal, hence there is strong doubt that the majority of these goals will be achieved by the set date line of 2015.

The world is rich yet there are a billion hungry people. Hunger exists because food and resources are not equitably distributed. This is an immoral and insufferable richness. The fragile, rich world we live in is now facing a structural and multifaceted crisis. Climate, energy, financial and economic crises further aggravate the persistent food crisis, the only one –so far– which has triggered riots in dozens of countries, clearly underlining how essential equitable access to food is to the well-being of people and to social and political stability. Tunisia is the recent example where a long standing dictatorship promoted by the multinational companies, was overthrown by a mass movement unprecedented in recent history. This was triggered by the rise in the price of bread and butter.

Looking at the gender dimension of poverty, the women of South Asia have a disproportionately lower level of participation in the world female labour force, that lower education and skills level s of women lead to lower earning, that gender discriminations starts even before birth through female infanticide and continue throughout life and that South Asia still contains the highest numbers of female illiterate in the world.

Displacement is a major problem that the vulnerable sections and in specific cases, other sections, face. Displacement from the traditional habitat is caused by many factors. Armed conflicts of various kinds and types, from internecine warfare to civil war to war on terror to counter insurgency, forms one set of reasons.  It is also the development programmes that displace millions from their habitat. Natural disasters are yet another major cause of internal displacement of people in large numbers.

The recent flood has forced at one time over 10 million people to leave their homes. Earlier in 2009, a military operation against religious fanatics in Swat valley resulted in 3.5 million people leaving their homes to safe lives for over three months. Same was the case of the catastrophic earthquake of October 2005. All the claims of the government to provide timely relief and rehabilitation did not materialize and many asked question again and again, “where is the government”.

All South Asian countries have altered their economic policies, political arrangements and foreign policy stances to suit the interests of dominant industrialized nations, often under the direction of the multilateral financial institutions such as World Bank, IMF and WTO. Instead of taking responsibility for these failures, World Bank and IMF are now blaming the victim countries for having poor institutions, bad governess and corrupt practices. Jobless growth in particular is being blamed on rigid labour market institutions and resistance to globalization. The majority of the workforce, both men and women, are employed in the rapidly swelling unorganized informal sector, characterized by uncertain wages and job insecurity. With virtual no legal protection or unionization, workers in these sector are vulnerable to exploitation.

According to Human Development Report 2009, the share of expenditure of the poorest 10 percent in Pakistan is only 3.9 percent as compared to 26.5 percent by the richest 10 percent. The situation is far worst in Nepal where the ratio is 2.7 percent to 40.4 percent by the 10 percent richest of the country.

The neo liberal agenda leaves the question of poverty eradication at the mercy of the free market and competitions. This is a false supposition. We had enough of the thirty years of neo liberalism. All the recipe and advices by IMF, World Bank and WTO to tackle the poverty resulted in opposite side. We have to do away with these institutions.

The principle issues before all the people of the region are survival with dignity, democracy, sovereign independence, anti people trends of neo liberalism, corporate globalization, unfair trade practices, debts, militarization, fundamentalism, gender injustice, armed conflicts, erosion of democracy, labour exploitation, unjust access to natural resources, and feminization of poverty. The solution to these problems- at least on conceptual level- can also not be narrowing national, let alone local or sectoral. The lasting solution can only be regional, to be sought, forged and implemented through struggle at a regional-South Asian- level in cooperation with the thought and struggle of the toiling masses the world over.

The reemergence of new politics requires the construction of new kinds of social and political institutions. The new politics are not an “end state” but the affirmation of the state as an instrument of the people’s power, people’s democracy and people’s empowerment. It also means reaffirmation of the state’s obligation of justice for the people from where it, according to democratic traditions, drives its legitimacy and power. The alternative politics need to challenge and later the development paradigm that argues for the market as the only appropriate answer to the problem of economic development.

In order to eradicate the poverty from south Asia and ensure the right to food of each individual along with the revolutionary changes in agrarian practices and peasants’ right, we the peasants’ movement of South Asia strives for guarantee of Food sovereignty as fundamental rights of people.

However, focusing on the state is not enough. Global capitalism is no longer identified with one country. It cannot be resisted with isolated actions that are confined to individual countries. Therefore the countries of South Asia are in a need today of anew radical imagination. The immediate struggle will have to focus on the question of survival and sustenance and on economic and social rights. The goal of a new universal culture and a new internationalism will be necessary component of this new vision.

Food sovereignty is ensured when peasants, agriculture workers, poor farmers, indigenous people, dalits and local minority groups and communities have the right over productive resources, including land, water, forest, seeds, credit, information and technology. To ensure the food sovereignty of every individual, genuine agrarian reform must be accomplished. An end of feudalism in all parts of South Asia is a must. It should be implemented in a comprehensive manner so that access of the people to productive resources is ensured and problems of the rural economy such as unemployment and poverty can be tackled. The people taking part in agriculture should be the ones making the agriculture policies and programmes. They should decide what sort of policies should be formulated. They should be brought in the decision-making process so that realistic policies and programmes can be introduced.

The food sovereignty policy framework has stated that agriculture is life, a tradition and a way of living for developing countries like ours. It is the basis for economic development and sustainable development. Therefore, the state should protect and develop agriculture, and implement the kind of agricultural development model that is sustainable. Food sovereignty ensures the right of every individual to affordable, safe, healthy, culturally appropriate, nutritious and locally produced food and to a life with dignity. It is also a right of the consumers to be able to decide what they consume, how it is produced and by whom it is produced. Food sovereignty also recognizes the contribution of women peasants, indigenous groups in overall agricultural activities who play a significant role in agricultural development, food production and seeds saving and storing.

Therefore, food sovereignty can be defined as a fundamental right of the people, local communities and the state to decide and implement their agricultural and food policies and strategies for sustainable production and distribution. It is the right of access to productive resources such as land, water, seeds and bio-diversity for sustainable utilization. So, it is urgent to incorporate food sovereignty as a sovereign right of people. We need to popularize the concept lunching advocacy and awareness campaign and lobby with the policy makers.

Parliamentarian caucus in this respect can not only help to inform, discuss, lobby but also in creating pressure to the government through their co-operation and support.


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