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Price spiral takes food items out of common man’s reach

food items prices pakistan newsKARACHI: In a bustling street of a downtown area, a police constable sells lemon juice outside a private hospital when he is off-duty and in his normal clothes.

Sher Alam (name changed to protect identity), in his 40s, works day and night to make ends meet. He is an ordinary juice-vendor between 8am and 4pm for his customers, who are unaware of his service in the capital city police where he works on the night shift.

While having barely a few hours for rest, Alam faces the rigours of daily life as a challenge only to get all his eight children educated. Yet it is a vicious circle of inflation that is denying him a right to see his dreams come true.

The police constable, clad in plainclothes, broke under simple questioning and started sharing the hard facts about his life. “I have always dreamed that my children receive quality education and get decent jobs. But, this seems almost impossible now with the prices of basic commodities skyrocketing,” he lamented.

“Although four of my children are studying at a private school, I don’t think I can continue to afford expenses on their studies if circumstances do not improve,” said the apparently pessimistic constable.

“I pay a house rent of Rs2,000 on a monthly basis in addition to the utility bills that come around Rs1,750,” he said, adding that he spent Rs1,800 every month as school fees of his four children and motorbike fuel cost him Rs50 daily.

“Just four years ago, I was able to save some money. But, times have changed. Although I earn Rs15,000 from the two jobs, nothing is literally saved at the end of the day. Just look at the price of wheat flour, which has gone up from Rs13 to Rs35 per kilo over the last five years, and you will understand how life haunts the common man every day,” he said.

Sher Alam is not alone who is suffering in silence, there are many hard-pressed people struggling for survival. Khayal Zameer, a driver at a newspaper office, is one of them. Although his income is slightly more than what Alam earns, he faces similar circumstances. After finishing his job late in the afternoon, Zameer serves at a security agency.

“My family is settled in Peshawar and I cannot afford their permanent stay in Karachi despite the fact that I have overstretched myself to earn Rs20,000 from the two jobs. Living far away from the family is obviously not an ideal situation, yet I find no better option,” he added.

Atiq-un-Nabi, father of a one-year-old boy, works at the library of the same office. He said he had a monthly salary of Rs11,000. “I live in a rented single-room flat in Ranchore Lane, as my monthly food expenses are between Rs6,000 and Rs7,000 while utility bills and fuel cost me around Rs2,100,” he added.

The librarian said: “The last time I ate fish was three years ago and that too at my in-laws’. In fact, we can only manage to have pulses and vegetables in meals for most of the month,” he said.

He said the entire salary was usually spent by the 20th on home expenses, and the remaining days of the month were managed with borrowings. “This is in addition to the unforeseen expenses such as those spent on illness or guests,” he added.

Increasing poverty

Alam, Zameer and Atiq represent the struggle of millions of people who are finding it extremely difficult to cope with the rising unchecked inflation. The fast rise in the prices of basic commodities especially over the last couple of years is a threat to their survival.

A report compiled and released by the Federal Bureau of Statistics this month shows that food inflation has increased to 21.24 per cent in September in comparison to last year’s. Prices of non-perishable food items have surged by 16.04 per cent and those of perishable items by 53.86 per cent.

A recent report jointly published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and World Food Programme provides further evidence to the increasing levels of poverty in the country. It says Asia and the Pacific has become the region with the most under-nourished people (578 million) and Pakistan is among those seven countries where two-thirds of the world’s under nourished live.

Another report by the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, Washington, paints even grimmer picture. It warns that the food shortage may lead to widespread violence in Pakistan if immediate steps are not taken to feed the hungry.

The report says: “About 77 million people go hungry in Pakistan while 36 per cent of the population is afflicted by poverty. From small farmers to the urban masses and internally displaced persons, millions of Pakistanis are affected by the scourge of food insecurity.”

Quoting figures provided by the UNFAO, the report notes that in February 2010, the prices of wheat and rice — Pakistan’s two chief staple crops — were 30 to 50 per cent higher than before the global food crisis, and were on the increase.

The study links several recent incidents of violence to the food crisis, including the 2009 bombing of a World Food Programme office in Islamabad.

It also quotes WFP data from early 2010, showing that the prices of essential staples in Pakistan are nearly 40 per cent higher than five-year cumulative averages. The costs of sugar and cooking oil also escalated in the beginning of the year.

Noted economist Dr Shahid Hasan Siddqui cited multiple factors for the current situation. He said: “The government is imposing taxes on the common man, but is unable to bring the elite in the tax net. Then, there has been a phenomenal rise in electricity tariff of about 64 per cent over the past two years, which also means an increase in the cost of production.

“With an increase in security expenses, the government is having increased borrowings from the central bank, which causes a rise in inflation. There is no efficient mechanism for price regulation at any level and hoarding and profiteering are rampant. The devaluation of a currency is also a contributing factor,” he said, adding that widespread frustration in public could lead to more incidents of lawlessness in the days ahead.

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