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EDITORIAL: Prime Minister Imran Khan has been crying hoarse about the need to do something about the growing incidence of stunting in Pakistan since long before he became prime minister. Noted London-based intellectual of high repute Tariq Ali, among others, has been consistently highlighting this challenge. The prime minister also made a point of talking about it, and the harm it does to our children and the future of the country, in his first official address to the nation after winning the election. So it is great news indeed that his government hasn't gone on to disappoint and on Monday, at the first meeting of the Pakistan National Nutritional Coordination Council (PNCC), he was informed that the Ehsaas Development Dashboard would start working across the country immediately and soon provide detailed data on the issue. Going by official figures at least 45 percent of the country's children suffer from stunting, while for Sindh the figure is somewhere between 50 and 60 percent. Yet the United Nations made some noise about the issue as well in the early 2000s and put the overall number nearer 60 percent. Therefore, the decision to conduct a country-wide data analysis is the right way to proceed. Everybody understands the nature of the problem, but only when its depth is properly anlaysed will it be possible to allocate necessary resources and build a workable timeline.

It is a very welcome sign that for once the government of Pakistan is so serious about a problem like stunting. Official policies to tackle it, and other such pressing problems, do exist but they have never been put into action. And it is simply shocking that over time we came to be counted among the top five countries in the world where children under the age of five die from diseases caused by drinking dirty water, especially diarrhea. Disorders stemming from malnutrition, especially stunting, do not just hold back physical growth of children but severely damage their mental development as well. These children go on to perform far below others and as a result get left behind the crowd at a very early stage. And it is not surprising that this particular phenomenon goes on to eventually harm national growth. When the odds are that 40 to 60 percent of the whole country's children are stunted, most of them born this way, it becomes a national medical as well as an economic emergency. For Pakistan's high population rate is very much a problem but it also provides the country with a potentially large workforce, a very big chunk of which is fortunately quite young, which means that the difficulty can be turned into an advantage with proper planning. However, the so-called demographic dividend suddenly becomes a demographic disaster when the state is unable to equip that workforce with the skills required for a national economic transformation. It's a big enough problem that the country has failed so badly in providing quality education to even a fraction of its population, but things become that much worse when even the few that can be taught at least the basics are incapable of learning because of medical and health issues that should have been addressed decades ago.

This is one area where the prime minister's concern and actions must be appreciated. Clearly, if it hadn't been for his personal push things would never even have come this far. Now the process of developing an action plan to put an end to this problem once and for all is already under way. It will, of course, be a pretty long process. Much of Pakistan's population lives just around the poverty line and even many of those that earn slightly better are forced to endure appalling living conditions. The process of identifying all the people in need, many of whom will be expecting mothers and little children, then developing workable interventions, and then monitoring the progress will require patience and dedication. But with the centre more than willing to assist the provinces in any way possible, and the prime minister himself so centrally involved, there is no reason for things not to begin to get better sooner rather than later. In its march as a nation Pakistan did many things, including fighting wars and becoming a nuclear power, but sadly it always took the health and nutrition of its children for granted. And now that the highest office in the land is finally taking such strong notice of this essential aspect of nation building, it is hoped that everybody involved in even the minutest part of this programme will give it their very best and honest effort.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020