Baby formula and food costs reach unaffordable levels

  • Wara Haider
  • Jul 04, 2024

She cowers in the corner of the local general store, counting and recounting the sweaty notes with her trembling fingers. These are her days’ worth of bone-breaking labour, she’s quite sure that this amount sufficed yesterday to buy some nutrition for her infant. Eyes wide with disbelief she keeps glancing at the new shiny stickers in a glaring script festively announcing the increased prices of baby formula milk which her mind reads like a death sentence. Due to lack of food and nutrition, she herself failed to meet the feeding needs of her baby. This locally produced formula milk, although did not level up to the daily recommended nutritional value for the child, but did compensate to some degree. With a sinking heart and the baby’s relentless cry of hunger ringing in her ears, she turns back and defeatedly walks towards home.

This not just a story it can easily turn into a horrific reality for numberless women living below the poverty line in Pakistan. The government has plans to impose 18% general sales tax on locally produced infant formula milk and baby food. It intends to withdraw the zero rating status of these locally produced products. This decision does not bring hope to a country whose ‘under-5 mortality rate’ is 137 for a 1000 births. 40% of children in Pakistan are underweight and more than half are affected by stunting, concludes the National Nutrition Survey. Finance minister Muhammad Aurangzeb emphasized on the importance of nutrition in the first 1000 days of a child’s life, while stressing the need to address stunting before proposing the added GST. Upon being questioned about the new tax in the press conference after the budget, he reiterated “It was not a big deal.” as middle and upper-middle classes are the target customers for formula milk and they can also afford the tax. It is important to know that the locally produced infant formula, baby food and fortified child nutrition milk powders are priced almost at 50% less than those imported. Hence, putting them in a more affordable category for the masses.

The representatives of the formula milk industry gave a presentation to the SENATE standing committee on this issue, concluding that a lesser damaging strategy would be to impose the GST in phases. They have requested the government to either make these products 0 rating or impose the tax in 3 stages, starting from 5% in the first year, followed by 10% in the second and the full 18% in the third year. The SENATE standing committee chairman, Senator Saleem Mandeviwala raised serious concerns about the proposed tax measures and was critical of imposing taxes on basic food items, including packaged and baby milk. Senator Mandeviwala rejected the proposed taxes on locally produced baby food and infant nutrition as well as packaged milk. The members of the committee expressed concerns about how such a measure would impact a country with a 40% stunting rate. Senator Anusha Rehman of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) criticized the increase of sales tax on milk as cruel and held that no consultation was made before making the decision. Senator Sherry Rehman of the Pakistan People Party (PPP) also echoed her stance and supported the rejection of the said taxes.

The public believes that this taxation will force parents towards less healthy feeding alternatives, excavating malnutrition among infants and children. Industry insiders revealed no previous tax on these items until the government set price caps 3 years ago, however the sudden imposition of an 18% GST in the latest budget took many by surprise.

Where these products might not fortify the malnutritioned Pakistani child into a strong and healthy adult, they still are the only affordable crutches that give these children a chance to enter a comparatively healthy adulthood. The proposition of this 18% GST on the baby formula milk and food slims down the already deteriorating chances of a healthy future generation for the country. The government will have to come up with some measures to share the burden of the parents seeking affordable nutrition in the form of locally produced baby food products.

Tonight she will rock her hungry baby to sleep in her tired arms waiting for a brighter and better tomorrow.


Wara Haider

Syeda Wara Haider is a freelance writer.

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