Pakistanis struggle for wheat flour in the holy month

World Friday 07/April/2023 07:14 AM
Pakistanis struggle for wheat flour in the holy month

Islamabad : Owing to the ongoing food crisis in the holy month of Ramzan, Pakistan is witnessing several stampedes at food distribution sites. In Karachi, 12 people - women and children - died recently, as they tried to get their hands on sacks of free wheat flour, mostly at the distribution points where wheat flour was being given away.

Wheat flour has become so expensive that for many people queuing up at distribution points is the only way to obtain this most essential dietary staple, wrote Rafia Zakaria for Dawn. Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

Similar stampedes have happened throughout the nation during the current fasting month, including in Peshawar, once more at a food distribution site. Hunger is such a scourge, and the need to provide food for one's family becomes so urgent that even risking one's life to find wheat flour feels like a necessary risk to take.

The statistics keep telling a depressing tale. The consumer price index indicates that the price of commodities rose 35 per cent from a year earlier in March, which is the highest level since 1965. Moreover, a 50 per cent increase in transportation costs was recorded. The ongoing crisis between Pakistan and the International Monetary Fund is in the foreground of chaos.

There is an urgent need for the Fund to release a USD 1 billion tranche to Pakistan. Without this sum, Pakistan might go into default, which would have the effect of submerging the nation in conditions that are even worse than those that are already occurring on the streets.

When a country defaults, it experiences restrictions on the global market because creditors lose confidence in receiving payment. In the post-default world, there would be lines for everything if the poor are currently waiting in line to buy sacks of flour and cooking oil.

People would be dying in hospitals from a lack of life-saving medication, which would force them to rely on the whims of the illicit market in order to try to obtain anything at all. Drugs are already in low supply, with pharmaceuticals issuing a dire warning.

It is notable that the majority of the dead in stampedes have been women. It is women who have to contend with the hunger of children and witness empty pots over stoves that no longer work because of the gas crisis.

In the month of Ramzan, hunger and thirst during the day are part of a period of refocusing on the spiritual through the hardship of foregoing sustenance. Imagine then, the acute pain and suffering of an endless fast where the absence of food means that the fast is perpetual, the hunger constant, Dawn reported.

They say that there is nothing more painful than the crushing agony of hunger cramps. It is their gruelling endurance that sent many mothers in the recent Karachi stampede to their death, mothers who died rather than face the disappointed eyes of their hungry children.

Mothers dying rather than disappointing their children is a particular and new depth for human depravity. For their part, the police set about arresting people the next day; blaming a factory manager and some business owners for what happened.

Offering food is a common act during Ramzan. Business owners, factory operators and other people with money always organise the distribution of rations during this holy month.

But there has always been an element of dehumanisation in these moments, the benevolent wealthy passing boxes or bags to the assembled poor, the aching want of one highlighting the magnanimity of the other. Being seen as wanting, as poor and as desperate seems crucial to getting help; the shame of poverty is utilised to underscore the arrogance of wealth, reported Dawn.

Even those concerns seem pointless this year when there are so many poor, so many wanting that the optics of want and generosity seem lost. In several interviews taken at one site, it was obvious that the hungry were not simply the desperate and very poor but also educated, even middle-class folk -- people with jobs in textile mills or other workplaces that have shut down because the owners cannot import the materials needed.

These people who have suddenly become poor can no longer afford the sacks of flour that cost more than Rs 1,000 for a 10-kg bag.

News of the closure of even more factories means that the lines will be even longer this month. Last week, it was announced that practically all the country's mobile assembling units have shut down. The people that work at these factories have been given half their salaries and told that they will be contacted when production resumes, wrote Rafia Zakaria for Dawn.

Both the textile mill operators deal with problems similar to that of mobile assemblers. Bank letters of credit promising payment of the sum are not available to the owners. It is impossible to maintain production lines without such letters.

It is impossible not to wonder whether this will ever end. Clearly, more needs to be done. The amount of food being distributed at these sites should be increased so that everyone gathered is able to get something. This should hold true for government distribution sites as well.

Governments, which are generally bad at managing any crisis of this sort, can enlist the help of private charity groups that are generally more efficient and can make distribution more orderly, the author wrote for Dawn.

Those who intend to hand out food must make sure they have sufficient supplies to fulfil the increased demand and must limit the number of people who are allowed to queue up. With foresight and a sincere awareness of the great need that so many people are experiencing during Ramzan, catastrophes like the ones that claimed so many lives last week can be prevented, Dawn reported.