Fate of hungry citizens

By Najma Sadeque

IN 60 years, there have been enough impositions of military rule and enough experimentation with feudal versions of democracy to demonstrate there isn`t much difference between them.

In a truly democratic environment, it would have been unacceptable audacity for an investment minister to make the cold-blooded assurance that the Middle East countries investing in corporate farming are ensured repatriation of 100 per cent of crops even if Pakistan faces a shortage of food.

It parallels the president`s unconcerned reaction to the food crisis. The problem will be resolved by next year, he said — as if the poor have stomachs different from ours that can suspend hunger pangs and death from starvation for six to nine months until the government is able to get its act together.

Such a blunt dismissal of the fate of hungry citizens can only come from an outlook devoid of feeling for fellow citizens. Definitely not the stuff of democracy. What contingency plans does the minister have to avoid food riots again, so they don`t degenerate to shoe-throws? Or will the buck be passed from ministry to ministry until desperate people are again convinced that hunger and joblessness won`t be solved?

What benefit will Pakistan get out of such investment? Foreigners will use our lands — which should have been better redistributed to peasants — who can grow food, cash crops and an export surplus, provided they are allowed to and are given the same support other citizens are.

The investors will cultivate hundreds of thousands of acres to grow food for themselves, not a morsel of which we`ll get, but might feed their expatriates as well. They will use our water, which is in short supply. They will use our energy, which is in even greater short supply. They won`t pay taxes for 10 years. They`ll use some of our cheap labour who`ll be so grateful to have jobs at all and able to eat at all that they won`t join other peasants in revolt.

Instead we`ll be paying for millions of lost livelihood opportunities and the environmental consequences of hundreds of four-wheel drives and oil-guzzling harvesting combines that will add to global warming.

Apart from polluted air and a lot less love, Pakistan will get nothing in return; it`s an outright giveaway — unless the only payment lies in the price tag for the privilege of using our land. How much are the investors paying? Or is that a secret too like World Bank/IMF/ADB deals and now the Bilateral Investment Treaty with the US — although none have anything to do with national security. Or is it because the one-off payment won`t be rolled back into grass-roots development but be adjusted against the oil the government keeps buying from the same investors to keep themselves propped up?

Former prime minister Shaukat Aziz and Gen Musharraf, who knew nothing about agriculture — picking up only from Afaq Tiwana, landed bigwig, of the then Agricultural Advisory Board — had no business to corporatise farming when the 1947 promise to restore land to the tiller was still pending after over half a century. They did because our governments have always done as they pleased and got away with it. At that time, decade-long tax holidays and minimum landholdings offered to corporate investors were 1,000 acres, the upper ceiling being limited only by geography. The minister merely reiterated a done deal.

A 30-year lease on land will be extendable for 20 more years. By then, assuming boundaries remained the same, after relentless drenching with chemicals and pushing the land beyond its natural capacity, the exhausted soil won`t be able to support any underground microorganisms let alone any plant, human, bird or wildlife above the ground. And after all is destroyed, there will be, as usual, no public scrutiny. The culprits will be long gone as anywhere up to 10 governments would have come and gone by then.

With Benazir Bhutto`s return there were tentative expectations that land reform, even if in fits and starts, would finally come about. There was hope that our new leaders would be inspired to behave more like Castro of Cuba and Chavez of Venezuela and Morales of Bolivia in matters of food security, mass rural employment and pride in one`s peasants. But there`s less interest in the masses than in consolidating control and money. We are voluntarily sold out to corporate re-colonisation. Besides, previously, it was going to be a Bhutto government, not a Zardari one.

There`s a wealth of proven and freely available information from the UN and scores of other agencies that even our government cannot dispute on the damage done worldwide including in Pakistan to soils, waters and human health by chemical monoculture, followed by GM crops, since the not-so-green revolution of the mid-sixties. Nor does corporate, that is monopoly, agriculture, create jobs; it decisively destroys them by the millions. It has already destroyed a billion farm and farm-related jobs worldwide, four million family farms in the US alone or 25 million or more victims.

By now the second or third generation in government or parliament should have been better informed. That couldn`t have been expected from the education system either here or abroad, because real information is kept out by design by corporate tentacles that have deeply infiltrated educational institutions and the media worldwide. But surely, concerned officials could learn from relevant journals and websites of respected, independent institutions?

Can corporate-friendly governments fulfil duties to citizens when our socio-economic woes have degenerated to something as basic as hunger and lost livelihoods? Once upon a time, that only happened to hapless African countries. We have the solutions to mass rural unemployment and mass hunger at our fingertips, but our rulers reject them because it will empower ordinary people and spell less than gargantuan profits for the entrenched minority. But the government even ignores UN advice to go back to organic farming to rescue our failing capacity in crop production as well as to mitigate global warming to which chemical agriculture heavily contributes.

If corporate farming is such a great thing, why isn`t the corporate deal document made public? Why is it that all contentious matters are unilaterally dealt with by the unelected and debated in parliament, if at all, and in the media only after it`s too late and nothing can be undone?

Well, there`s a saying to the effect that things have to be kept secret when there is something dubious or damning to hide.

This article was published in DAWN, December 23, 2008         http://archives.dawn.com/archives/30397

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About denebsumbul

Documentarian, Activist, Journalist, Photographer, Capacity Trainer
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