Rationing? Can it be the answer to upcoming food challenges for Pakistan
17 Jun 2020
Chaudhry Fareed Naseem
The shortage of food and food security is the biggest scare and panic creator in the times of crises and difficulty and it gets worsened over time. It may have been better in the previous decades but currently, Pakistan is facing multi-faceted challenges due to the on-going regional and international issues like LOCUST and COVID – 19. The situation is being further worsened by the climate change and last but not the least the rampant increase in population. Climate changes have incredibly affected Pakistan’s agricultural productivity for the last few years. The global analysis of climate change shows adverse impacts on South-Asian economies including Pakistan. The climate-related natural disasters have increased many times and there impacts on the economy of Pakistan cannot be ignored. According to a UN report, Pakistan is at fifth position of risk of being hit by climate change and it is, for sure, that the climate change will leave no opportunity in impacting agriculture, and it is doing so. Besides, with population increase, urbanisation is also taking place at a fast pace; enormous growth in population is impacting cultivable lands. Thus, cultivable lands are being converted to houses, even though they also require food to eat.
COVID-19 is upsetting activities of livelihood, agriculture and supply chains. Prices have declined for various commodities, vegetables, and other crops, yet consumers are often paying more. Media reports show that the closure of hotels, restaurants, marriage halls, and tea stalls during the lockdown is already depressing the consumption of perishable commodities like vegetables, fruits and milk sales. Meanwhile, poultry farmers have been badly hit due to misinformation, particularly on social media, that chicken are the carriers of COVID-19. On the other hand with COVID-19 now spreading, massive consequences to health and livelihoods are feared. Further to add to the misery now the government/ farmers have another firefight on their hands: THE LOCUSTS. For farmers, locusts are the most destructive of insects. They feed voraciously on almost all types of crops; the potential for locusts’ exponential growth and crop devastation can jeopardize the food and economic security of arid and semi-arid regions as well as agricultural hubs. Concerns are intensifying as the sowing period for Kharif or monsoon crops like rice, maize, millet, pulses, soybean, and groundnut has reached. In the midst of impacts by Covid-19 on health, livelihoods and food security of the most vulnerable communities and populations of Pakistan, it is imperative to contain and successfully control the Desert Locust infestation.
With COVID – 19 and LOCUST threat still spreading; it is difficult to say when they would be contained. Contingency plans to help tackle demand for essential provisions, with more sections of the population – including vulnerable and low income population – preparing for self-implementation of lock-down. So to ensure food security for all, we need to take urgent actions at national, regional and global levels. During the Second World War; in early 1940 the British established the rationing system to deal with shortages of basic goods caused by wartime disruption in supplies, to feed the troops on the war front and to distribute the essential rations and nutrients equally o everyone. The ration system, though far from perfect, nonetheless has a number of attributes that recommend its preservation. These include its widespread accessibility, its relatively low administrative burden on the government, its flexibility, and the long-standing experience. Serious thought should be given to improving its benefits.
Food items are deemed critical to ration; they can be either staples or luxuries. Staple foods—those vital to basic survival and the central elements in a cuisine—often vary according to culture, region, and tradition, and may include rice, flour, bread, milk, meat, cooking oil, canned goods, and salt. Highly desirable, psychologically important items such as cheese, butter, sugar, coffee, tea, and tobacco are arguably as important as staples to ensuring public contentment and cooperation, and thus are regarded as essential to ration. The success of rationing in any country is highly dependent on efficient/effective administration and on unyielding honesty of government officials, farmers, wholesalers, grocers, and consumers.
At the time of partition Pakistan inherited ration system from the British, at that time, the ration shops handled wheat sugar, eggs, tea, matches, kerosene, yarn, and cotton cloth. After partition, Pakistan government; crippled as it was continued with the same. Until 1960s when, as a result of several years of favourable weather, the crop became plentiful. Rationing was abolished, but the shops continued to sell atta (whole wheat flour), which the government obtained through its guaranteed price support scheme, with no limitation on quantity. In the mid-sixties, bad weather and the war with India again resulted in scarce supplies. The system was re- implemented and continued through the 1970s. In the later years, good weather along with various agricultural development schemes resulted in abundant supplies of wheat, putting Pakistan in the position of wheat exporter. At the same time, ration prices were allowed to drift upward toward the free-market rate, while the rise in free-market prices weakened because of increasing supplies. Ration shops were used to ensure equitable distribution of rations at subsidized prices during the severe shortage in 1972 and 1973. Increasing domestic production of commodities was high on the priority list of the government. The history thus demonstrates the long-standing nature of the ration system and its flexibility to deal with changing conditions of supply and its means of ensuring orderly provision for basic rations to the general public.
In our ration system, it was must that one applying was a resident of Pakistan with a fixed address. There was no income related criteria for eligibility. Users were to register with a particular ration shop in their area. Cardholders were issued with ration cards indicating the number of members in the household by age, since rations were determined on per person basis. Ration shops were privately owned, subject to licensing and regulation by the provincial government. Under the current circumstances where the agriculture output of the country is under threat due to the LOCOUST attack and COVID – 19 pandemic; moreover the FOREX is low for the imports even for the basic commodities; there is dire need for the planners, bureaucrats and political stalwarts, to develop a strategy to manage the adverse outcome of all the upcoming challenges and threats combined. However, if a consensus should be reached about the relationship between how to handle the up-coming challenges and to convince the public to reduce consumption in order to prevent further aggravating the situation.
Chaudhry Fareed Naseem is a freelance writer on Pakistan and Regional Affairs, has worked in various governmental and non governmental offices.