Once upon a time in Pakistan, food was very cheap, especially the third-rate, chemically-grown, nutrient-poor wheat fed to American livestock (who don’t want to eat it either, and would prefer fresh grass), and which third-world countries were made to import and their people expected to gratefully eat. Local wholegrain flour cost more; only the better-off bought that, unless one was a smallholder or sharecropper growing one’s own wheat.

Indeed, the most important locally-grown food was so cheap, it was difficult for anyone to go hungry. Even if someone was unemployed, other family members could feed everyone without feeling the pinch. Sharing was still ingrained in our culture. Of course, there were no luxuries like eating red or white meat or fish except on special occasions – exploitation under feudalism was alive and well – but conditions made it possible to struggle through to the next level. Even better, in the rural areas there was healthy ‘desi’ ghee and gur, the likes of which are not found in urban areas. Structural adjustment, courtesy the World Bank, had not yet arrived. Then from the 80s when it did, things grew steadily bad.

A family’s kitchen waste makes a perfect barometer of their socio-economic status. The more paper, plastic and foil wrapping, disposable cartons and bottles there are, along with generous mounds of fruit and vegetable peels, bones, gristle and fat, the more overfed they are, even if a lot of the intake is of processed junk food and drink.

At the other end of the social spectrum are the poor who, to retain one of the few joys of life left — eating with family and friends — have developed remarkably tasty, even if simple, fare. These often translate into livelihoods preparing affordable street food for the ‘blue collar’ class. What happens when they can’t even manage that little?

The story of a large mixed community brings it home poignantly. Most people have heard of ‘Khuda ki Basti’, after which a famous television serial was titled — settlements of housing for the poor so that they could enjoy acceptable standards of shelter and a better quality of life, organized over the last three decades by Dr. Tasnim Siddiqui, a former civil servant, but always more of a social worker at heart.

Real estate has been a racket since the inception of Pakistan, which made it impossible for poor people to buy even a patch to make a home on. Dr Tasnim would get the government to allot a largish piece of undeveloped land which would be divided into small plots. No municipal services were available, but poor families willing to incrementally invest in improvements over time for which technical advice and guidance were provided, were allotted a plot each. Bit by bit they would make additions and improvements – a wall for security, a tree for fruit or shade and beauty, a pit latrine, additional rooms, and so on.

The series of ‘Khuda ki bastis’ – shelter for the poor — was so successful, it won Dr. Siddiqui the prestigious Magsaysay Award. And he continued making more. Until about five years ago, land and shelter were the main hurdles to survival, not lack of food except in the worst of feudally exploited areas.

Then when the previous government had just come into power, prices of some essential foods suddenly shot up. It was an outcome of the financial crash of 2008, a part of the ripple effect arising from the global trade and speculation, including in food staples. Because of export-orientation and smuggling, food prices for locals were always higher anyway than they should have been.

Ordinary people had to do some belt-tightening and there was public unrest. Mr. Zardari, ever smug, unfazed  and reportedly ceremoniously sacrificing eight black goats a day in the presidential palace (until later when angry objections became loud and embarrassing), made a statement to calm the agitated hungry. Things will be OK by the end of the year, he said, (there were still six months to go) and prices will come down. They never did, and no one ever again believed what he said, at least on matters of food and fuel.

Dr. Siddiqui’s latest ‘Khuda-ki-basti’ set up seven years ago on an edge of Karachi, boasted some 4000 homes. Poor but hardworking, they had come from all over the country in search of a place where they could put down roots, work honourably for their earnings, and live in peace with their neighbours. There were Sindhis, Punjabis, Baluch, Pathans, Karachiites – a truly mixed bag. NGOs turned up to offer free medical and other services and training. A variety of paid services and shops followed thereafter.

This ‘Khuda-ki-basti’ had several new, additional features. Wishing to instill practices of cleanliness and orderliness at the very outset while dealing with waste, while turning it into a self-financing commercial enterprise, Dr. Siddiqui set up a simple composting plant. Teams would collect kitchen waste placed in covered containers outside each house – which came to an awful lot from several thousand houses – and carry them to the plant. Here the waste was turned into rich fertilizer in a couple of months, bagged and sold in the market. It was also used in a large space within the settlement reserved for farming. The community could buy their vegetables even cheaper there.

Then suddenly in 2008, the waste output began to shrink. What people ate most were lentils and flatbread which leave no waste, vegetables and seasonal fruit which leave peels and cores. Within a year it halved, and after some time nothing came except onion peels; often, not even that. The composting plant began to receive little to compost.

Things haven’t got any better since; it’s just worse. It’s reflected in the number of ‘langars’ (free food kitchens) that continue to grow; once frequented only by beggars and the unemployed, for the last five years, attendance by daily-wage workers (who don’t usually get daily work), and even drivers, peons and clerks, so as to save their meal-money to take home.

It’s not difficult to imagine how they feel watching politicians and leaders on TV shamelessly and routinely tucking in from tables groaning under the weight of the richest dishes they can only dream of. All paid for by taxpayers.

The writer is a former journalist and currently director of The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah, a rights and advocacy group

Email: najma.sadeque.ns@gmail.com