Struggling for wheat flour

IT is happening all the time now. As Ramazan proceeds, a huge rush, sometimes ending in stampedes, at food distribution sites is a common sight. In Karachi, 12 people — women and children — died recently, as they tried to get their hands on sacks of free wheat flour. The latter has become so expensive that for many people queuing up at distribution points is the only way to obtain this most essential dietary staple.

Similar stampedes during the ongoing month of fasting have occurred elsewhere in the country, too, as in Peshawar, once again at a food distribution site. Such is the curse of hunger and the desire to get some sustenance for one’s family is so pressing that even endangering one’s life in the quest for wheat flour seems a necessary risk to take.

The numbers continue to tell a sad story. According to the consumer price index, the prices of commodities were up 35 per cent in March from one year earlier — the highest since 1965. It was also reported that the price of transportation rose by 50pc. In the background of the mad rush is Pakistan’s ongoing drama with the International Monetary Fund.

Pakistan’s need for the Fund to release a tranche of $1 billion is dire. Without this amount, Pakistan could default and the consequences of that would be the country being submerged in circumstances even worse than the ones that are unfolding on the streets nowadays.

When a country defaults, it finds itself constrained in the international market because creditors have no confidence in getting paid. If the poor are lining up for sacks of flour and cooking oil now, the post-default future would mean lines for everything.

Patients would be dying in hospitals as there would be a shortage of lifesaving medicine — drugs are already in short supply, with pharmaceuticals sounding a grim warning — leaving people to the vagaries of the black market to try and obtain anything at all.

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 Ramazan, 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.

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.

It is impossible not to wonder whether this will ever end. Clearly, more needs to be done.

The giving of food is common in Ramazan. Business owners, factory operators and other people with money always organise the distribution of rations during the 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.

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 floor that cost more than Rs1,000 for a 10-kilogramme 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.

The problems faced by the mobile assemblers are similar to those that textile mill owners confront. The owners are unable to obtain letters of credit from banks that guarantee that the amount will be paid. Without those letters, it is impossible to keep the lines of production going.

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 there is able to get something. This should hold true for government distribution sites as well.

Governments, that 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.

Without a superhuman and unprecedented effort by both, people will die of hunger in the month when charity and fellow feeling is supposed to be the focus of everyone fasting to earn blessings.

Those who plan to distribute food need to ensure that they have enough supplies to meet the increased need and to control the number of people who are permitted to line up. Catastrophes like the ones that took so many lives last week can be avoided with foresight and some sincere consciousness of the acute want faced by so many people this Ramazan.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

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