Pakistanis are dying for bags of flour

Pakistani flags protesters

During the French Revolution, Queen Marie Antoinette is said to have remarked, when told that starving peasants had no bread to eat, that “let them eat cake”. Ironically, the people of Pakistan today have no flour to consume. To say that people are literally dying over bags of flour is a reflection of the dire economic abyss that Pakistan is staring at. Inflation for March 2023 was at 35 per cent, which is amongst the highest-ever. For the more vulnerable segments, inflation is close to 50 per cent, as food prices spiral out of control. Notably, high inflation levels are fuelled by the continued slide of the Pakistan Rupee (PKR) and unprecedented high food inflation. This situation has led to stampedes for food and other rations across Pakistan and in particular, for flour. There was already shock over the flour stampede in Charsadda, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, when reports came in of at least nine women and three children dying in a stampede in Karachi’s industrial hub, SITE area on 31 March 2023.

The deaths in Charsadda occurred in a stampede during the distribution of free government flour. The stampede broke out during the distribution of free government flour in the market of Charsadda, leaving several injured. The setting of this tragedy was a factory owner in the area organizing a ration distribution drive, an annual practice observed in the month of Ramadan. Charity drives are a visible feature of Ramadan in Pakistan. Factory owners, businesspersons, philanthropists, etc., usually invite people to collect alms. But this year Pakistan’s economy has been hit by multiple triggers. Not only is it suffering the dents created by the Ukraine war, Pakistan is also finding it difficult to make up for the economic losses caused by the 2022 floods. This has now created a humanitarian crisis in an agrarian economy where people cannot afford basic food items.

Last month, a labourer in Punjab’s Narowal along with two children, committed suicide by jumping into a canal. In another incident, a man in Muzaffargarh committed suicide along with his four-year-old daughter on account of inflationary pressure. Meanwhile, a major scuffle was witnessed at the free wheat flour distribution centre in Shorkot in which five persons, including a woman, were injured, reported Dawn. In Shorkot, Punjab Province there was a heavy rush of free flour seekers located at the Government Elementary School in the Cantt area. The scuffle occurred between policemen and the people, leading to a stampede-like situation. As a result, five persons received injuries. They were given first aid at Shorkot Rafiqui Welfare Hospital.

A similar situation had occurred at the same centre earlier when people had attempted to open the gate of the school forcibly to enter the distribution centre and some people were also injured. Meanwhile, the people blocked a road to protest the non-availability of flour in Muzaffargarh in the Punjab Province. People blocked a road for hours in the Jatoi area to protest the non- availability of flour, alleging that some agents were charging PKR 200 per bag at the flour point. The protest continued until the flour was received by the protesters. All this happening as Pakistan faces its biggest economic crisis in several decades. Pakistan has reportedly doubled its debt roughly every five years over the last 25-year period. Prices are going up and the government has failed to provide basic amenities like gas and power. Karachi was shrouded under a gas load-shedding in the month of Ramazan. Citizens couldn’t prepare Sahri (meal eaten before dawn during Ramazan) due to the gas shutdown and low supply, and the pakoras and samosas were left raw even in Iftar. On top of it, the country’s rising inflation has had negative effects on the purchasing power of the professional class whose charities used to take burden off the backs of the government and other philanthropists. All these triggers have pushed millions of people below the poverty line!

Consequently, the incumbent Provincial government has stopped selling subsidised flour of 10 kg. The flourmills have been directed to stop the supply of bags of flour in open market shops resulting subsidised flour vanishing from all areas of the Punjab Province, including the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Meanwhile, the Punjab government increased the rate of subsidized flour bags of 10 kg from PKR 648 to PKR 1150. People have been running from pillar to post to purchase ‘Atta’ but in vain because shopkeepers with the full backing of the government and flour mills are selling the commodity in ‘black’. Only 2 to 3 per cent of people registered with Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) are getting ‘atta’ free of cost from sale points. Over 95 per cent of people not registered with BISP have become rolling stones and are running behind ‘atta’ in vain.

The News newspaper rightly laments the lack of coordinated fiscal and monetary policy responses on part of the government. This coupled with the complete inability of the State Bank of Pakistan to keep inflation within the target range has led to Pakistan coming to the verge of a hyperinflationary cycle. Households depending on wage earners and salaried individuals, whose real earnings have been on the decline for the last several years despite (any) nominal raises because of the rupee depreciation, are the hardest hit by economic hardship. In other words, the cost of living crisis gripping the lower- income strata of society in Pakistan, has been converted into a full-blown disaster, unmitigated by the precious little the government has been able to do to address it.

Incidents of people dying for asking for flour have been reported from the Punjab Province. If this is the prevailing situation in Pakistan’s most prosperous region, then one wonders how bad conditions are in the other Provinces. As food inflation increases unabated and could stay elevated given the complete breakdown of supply chains, another round of inflation due to an increase in wages will follow. Policymakers on all sides of the spectrum have failed Pakistan. Even worse in the current situation is their inability to accept they have failed. This can only lead to further disaster. With no ideas for course correction, the government of Shahbaz Sharif doesn’t seem to realize that it is running out of time to avert a cost of living disaster that has the potential to spark violent upheavals.

Copyright Greekcitytimes 2024