In 41 AD, as the last surviving member of the imperial family, Tiberius Claudius Drusus unexpectedly became the Emperor of Rome. He was not as bad as many of his successors, but like many emperors, he was fond of games and festivities. While he was busy holding gladiatorial contests and triumphs, many parts of Rome were struck by severe famine, including one that is described by Luke in his book “Acts of the Apostles.”
Like rulers of the yore, who held games to distract the populace from political and economic problems, it appears our rulers have taken a similar page out of history’s book. While the governments of Sindh and Punjab were organising games, dance and concerts, the people of Thar were starving to death.
People from different sides of the political spectrum have come up with different explanations for the famine. The members of PPP and the officials of the Sindh government declared famine as a work of God, implying that drought is something over which man has at best little control. Other political actors including the Prime Minister, blamed it on provincial administrative machinery, calling for action against those who are responsible for it.
Though prolonged drought and bad administration might have exacerbated the situation in Thar, there is better explanation for the famine, which fits our situation, and has more to do with macroeconomic policy and rising inequality within the country.
In 1998, the Indian Economist Amartya Sen was awarded a Nobel Prize in Economics, acknowledging his contribution to welfare economics. A significant portion of his work deals with the economics of famine, postulated at length in his book “Poverty and Famines.” According to Sen, in many cases, at the time of famine, countries had adequate food supplies. The mass starvation was caused not by declining availability of food but by the declining wages, rising food prices, unemployment and skewed food distribution systems.
Sen’s interest in famine stems from his childhood experience. He was nine years old, when he witnessed the Bengal famine of 1943, which claimed three million lives. The Second World War caused the food prices in Bengal to rise by three hundred percent whereas the wages of labour rose by thirty percent, triggering the famine, as millions couldn’t afford basic food items. Ethiopia faced a similar situation in 1973. Though abundant food was available in the country, several provinces faced famine due to bad income distribution and transportation shortcomings.
Population growth and efficiency issues have been dogging our agricultural output, and to check food prices we have to import agricultural commodities, but overall Pakistan has adequate availability of food. Amongst this abundance, if a segment of our society experiences a famine like condition, then it has more to do with economic and social conditions, than with the mere fact of less rainfall.
Where prolonged drought has undermined the entitlements of Thar’s population, which derive most of their income through subsistence farming or livestock, the inflationary pressure has seriously jeopardised their access to food, as many of them complain that their shrinking incomes could not keep pace with the rising prices of food items.
Over a couple of years we have witnessed a growing income gap between different segments of our society. The State Bank in last year’s State of the Economy report, highlighted this fact, stating that inflation, unemployment and the economic slowdown has generated skewed income and consumption patterns across Pakistan. If inflation is not controlled and inequality keeps on rising, we might witness a Thar like situation in many parts of Pakistan.
Amartya Sen believes that democracy and the free press are the most effective bulwarks against the famines, as democratic governments are forced to intervene and prevent the calamity out of fear of public opprobrium. Had there been a real democratic set up in Pakistan, famine and likewise many other calamities could have been averted.
Relief efforts will certainly ameliorate the famished condition of the population, but its an ephemeral solution. Aid distribution saves lives but doesn’t take away the root cause of the problem. All governments, past and present, are equally responsible for the state of our economy and the impoverishment of the population. The government must do its utmost to control inflation, and try to narrow the income gap by offering employment and entrepreneurial opportunities to the marginal segments of the population. The development of canals, roads and communication networks can prove valuable in staving off the drought in Thar.
Commentators will comment, analysts will analyse, people will grumble but our political parties will keep on defending their records. Since the magnitude of the calamity has unfolded, not a single state functionary has rendered his resignation and no apology has come from the PPP or Sindh government. Unless people really hold the rulers accountable for their actions, we should be prepared to see more of what has happened in Thar.

 The writer is a freelance columnist and has worked as a broadcast journalist.

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