by Mashaal Gauhar
Earlier this year, Thar’s desperate plight was grimly laid bare with health officials confirming the deaths of over 143 children from malnutrition over a four-month period. 

Caused by several factors including poverty, food scarcity, inflation, drought and lack of access to clean drinking water, Pakistan’s malnutrition rates are among the highest in the region.

Recently, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization found that 37.5 million people in Pakistan were not receiving proper nourishment. 

Several studies have shown the ravaging effects of malnourishment, not only on physical but also mental development including stunted growth and impaired cognitive ability. In 2015, a World Bank report found that malnourished children lose 10% of their lifetime earning potential, warning that malnutrition costs countries up to 3% of the yearly GDP.

In spite of Pakistan’s abundance of resources and its inherent agrarian strength, the country’s nutrition indicators have been estimated to be worse than that of sub-Saharan Africa. Inexplicably, Pakistan 2015-2016 budget did not allocate any separate funds towards chronic malnutrition.

A largely pastoral economy, the desert area of Thar is keenly dependent on rainfall for its crops and livestock and so vagaries of the weather can spell disaster for the future. Thar’s arid climate means that it is prone to two to three years of drought every decade or so. However, inadequate measures by successive governments have consistently failed to save the people of Thar against the devastating impact of established climatic patterns. 

The systematic failure to provide Thar’s citizens with the most basic of amenities is indicative of a deeper malaise - endemic corruption pervading every level of government and public administration resulting in a gross misallocation resources.

Mismanagement and a lack of strategic resolve have thwarted the success of various initiatives in guarding against famine and addressing the pervasive problem of malnutrition. Endemic poverty means that health care facilities remain woefully inadequate. High illiteracy rates and the absence of basic infrastructure have blighted Thar’s hopes for economic and social and development.

Economic growth has long been acknowledged as the primary solution to eliminating hunger - investment in economic development and education would bring transformational change to one of the poorest parts of Pakistan.    

“Thar’s coal reserves are a high priority, and extensive work has already been undertaken by GoP on road networks linking the far-flung areas of Thar to the rest of the country. Companies that are investing in the coal blocks are also promising proper returns to communities. However, the key focus must be on prioritising the demands of the people, the main ones being access to potable water, quality provision of healthcare, education and jobs. Government, corporates and civil society need to work together to ensure equitable development for the peoples of Thar”, comments Samia Liaquat Ali Khan, at the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund.

Though there is no overall shortage of food on a national or global level, the disastrous misallocation of resources has led to systemic problems in food supply contributing to soaring malnutrition rates, of which the suffering endured by the people of Thar is just one example. 

Solving the malnutrition crisis is not an elusive goal as neighbouring China has so amply demonstrated - following China’s successful poverty reduction programme, several economists have predicted that there will be no more hungry people there by 2020. 

Over two decades, China rescued about 100 million people from hunger.  This was partly achieved through the implementation of far-reaching agriculture policies including providing subsidies to small farmers to invest in modern technologies, investment in agricultural research and training as well as overall investment in the rural sector, particularly infrastructure.

Additionally, the Chinese government ensured the provision of improved rural social services with free compulsory education for students, a rural cooperative medical care system that covers 97% of the rural population and basic living allowances for over 53 million rural people. These measures helped to bolster economic growth ushering in unprecedented economic and social prosperity for China’s rural population. 

Combating endemic deprivation can be an achievable imperative with the requisite political will. Furthermore, statistics indicate that that Pakistan’s overall poverty levels are on the decline. However, the chasm between rich and poor continues to widen.  

Failure to prioritise the suffering of the disenfranchised poor amounts to a damning indictment of a country which describes itself as an Islamic republic yet has strayed far from the religion’s central ethos of social justice, equity and protection of the most vulnerable.