Poverty and deprivation are evident everywhere as one drives out of the southern Punjab city of Muzzafargarh, some 400km southwest of the provincial capital Lahore.
However, an incident that took place recently in Basti Badani village, in the south of Muzzafargarh District, has left everyone shocked.
Several days ago labourer Abdul Salam clubbed to death four of his six children (ranging in age from 11 years to 18 months). Two others, who had also been badly beaten, survived. Salam said he did this as he could not feed his children.
He later told the daily Dawn newspaper he had killed his children because he was “unemployed for 10 days and could not meet their demands”. There was insufficient food in the house and when he killed them they had gone to sleep hungry, he said.
Despite the widespread shock, some say they sympathise with how Salam felt.
“What he did was evil. He must be a monster to club down sleeping children. But on some days, when there is literally nothing to eat in the house, one despairs for the future of the children and wonders if they are better off alive or dead,” said Rehmat Ali, 35, a labourer from Muzzafargarh who has four small children.
He fears he may have to remove his two eldest children from school. “I cannot afford uniforms or the transport costs. We must choose between food and education,” said Rehmat, who earns about Rs 3,500 a month (about US$55).
The incident is not an isolated one. In March this year, in a village close to the industrial city of Faislabad, a father of seven killed two of his daughters, and then committed suicide by jumping in front of a train.
Around the same time in Lahore, a young mother, Bushra Bibi, threw herself and two small children in front of a train. In a suicide note, she said she would rather see her children die than suffer poverty and the hunger and deprivation it brought.
Efforts to control prices
The Punjab provincial government has tried to control food price inflation by fixing the price of a 20kg bag of wheat flour at Rs 375 (about $5.5), and Food Minister Malik Nadeem Kamran has urged the federal government to import “2.5 million tonnes of wheat to avert any future crisis”. However, prices have soared by 20 percent in the past year, making life extremely arduous for many.
The food subsidy schemes initiated by the government have yet to have much of an impact on the ground, and just days ago, National Assembly member from Muzzafargarh Qayyum Jatoi said his voters were “very concerned” about prices, and were “demanding relief”.
Commenting on incidents this year in which parents have killed their children because of their inability to feed them, Saira Aziz, a Lahore-based psychologist, told IRIN that when parents are under huge stress, children often suffer abuse.
“Murder is of course an extreme form of this, but the inability of parents to bring enough food home almost certainly leads to heightened domestic tensions and associated problems, including violence,” Aziz said.
Photo: Kamila Hyat/IRIN
|Boys at a Lahore shelter home eat a meal - many families are finding it increasingly difficult to feed their children|
There is other evidence of increasing desperation. The Edhi Centre, a local charity in Hyderabad, Sindh Province, has reported cases of parents asking it to take in children they could no longer provide for.
A six-month-old boy was left at the centre by a woman. Edhi volunteer Mairaj Ahmed told the media the woman who brought him in “told us that they can’t take care of the baby because they are living below the subsistence level”.
Another woman brought in four children, but took them away again when she was told she might not be able to see them again if she handed them over to the Centre.
Meanwhile, efforts are being made to make a difference: The Karachi Stock Exchange has embarked on a programme to offer free meals to 3,000 people in the city.
Similar philanthropic efforts are expected to follow after the Prime Minister acknowledged that the food crisis was a “top priority”.