Pakistan: Inflation dampens Ramadan spirit – DW (English)

Ramadan this year comes at a hard time for Pakistanis. The Islamic holy month has been overshadowed by rising food inflation, and tightened budgets have made things tougher for Pakistan's poorest.
Consumer price inflation in Pakistan has skyrocketed to 31.5% — with experts estimating a coming surge to 33%.
This year’s Ramadan — which has been labeled the “deadliest and most expensive” — is disproportionately impacting low-income citizens
Ramadan is considered a month of charity in Pakistan, during which many people give alms, clothes and food to those who are less well-off.
The Pakistani government also engages in charity drives, such as free wheat distribution, but experts warn that such schemes may be doing more harm than good.
Disorganized lines of people and haphazard distribution management has caused stampedes at overcrowded flour distribution centers, leading to at least 23 deaths over Ramadan so far.
“Procurement for charitable donations generates demand side pressures on price, so it is a bit ironic that giving to the poorest may actually have a small adverse impact on those who do not receive or partake of alms,” Haris Gazdar, former coordinator to Chief Minister Sindh on social protection, told DW.
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The market price of flour per 10 kilograms (22 pounds) rose from around 680 Pakistani rupees (PKR) (€2.19; $2.35) before Ramadan to 1,120 Pakistani rupees during Ramadan.
The hike is caused by an increased demand, but also by wheat sellers trying to recoup lost revenue due to free wheat schemes.
While throngs of poverty-stricken Pakistanis are visiting wheat distribution centers, many working-class people are forced to choose between paying high wheat prices they can’t afford or waiting in long lines for free flour.
“They can call it free flour, but how can something be free when at best, people suffer indignation and at worst, death,” said Muhammad Nadeem, a 39-year-old driver with a family of five who opted to pay for the overpriced flour instead of waiting in line.
Distribution centers operating in the country’s capital city, Islamabad, seem better managed and, so far, there have been no reports of serious incidents.
Nineteen distribution points across Islamabad welcome citizens with boards brandished with Prime Minister Shehbaz Shariff’s photograph and the slogan “A Gift of Wheat:” Gender-segregated rooms or lines are set up in designated spaces such as community centers and wedding marquees. At least 400,000 10kg bags of wheat have been distributed in the capital.
Each family is entitled to one 10 kilogram bag of flour under the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA). Those who qualify under Pakistan’s Benazir federal poverty reduction program (BISP) — named in tribute to assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto — receive three packets.
Many people waiting in wheat distribution lines are not aware of the one-bag-per-family rule because — in a country with a literacy rate of 62.3% — they often cannot read about the limits.
Adding to the stress, it is not uncommon for people to eventually reach the front of the line to be told that their family has already received its entitlement of wheat.
“I have been waiting for four hours because we were told that every person of a poor household gets wheat, but now I am being turned back because they are saying my son already received our share last week,” said 63 year-old Zarka Bibi. “Why are they lying to us and wasting time?”
The organizers, however, believe that many people send multiple family members in order to hoard more wheat.
“We are trying to do something good, but it is sorry to see that some people are trying to take benefit and try their luck if they can get away getting more but our system is very robust,” City Magistrate Islamabad Ghulam Murtaza Chandio told DW.
While charity is important, particularly during Ramadan, some experts are skeptical of the government-led initiatives.
“As the general economic conditions are not expected to improve anytime soon, due to the deadlock in continuation of the IMF program, the incumbent government is left with little option but to look towards launching targeted relief schemes for the lower strata of society to improve their electoral standing,” social protection expert Umer Khalid told DW. 
While this may indeed be a long-standing weapon in Pakistan’s political arsenal, the country’s marginalized people have grown indifferent to elections.
“I don’t think it matters who I give my vote to; it is not like any government has done anything for the ordinary man, but I guess people remember the last government that gave something to uplift our suffering,” Ihsan Gul told DW.
Experts argue that if the government truly wanted to uplift the country’s poor during Ramadan, they would use the cash fund transfer system that was used during the COVID pandemic.
Uzair Younas, director of the Pakistan Initiative at the Atlantic Council, deemed these schemes as merely “photo ops” for the government.
He said that Pakistan is not leveraging its digital infrastructure in a way that is “supporting people through dignity and empowering them to spend their funds as they need.”
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Edited by: Keith Walker


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