Jul 2, 2008

Pakistan's poor hit as food prices soar

They line up most days of the week, to get a chance to grab the free food that is doled out here.
Hands outstretched, they clamour to get an extra helping of whatever is on offer.
Hunger in the eyes of the young children, desperation in the eyes of their mothers. Many women hid their faces, ashamed and embarrassed that their misfortune is being witnessed by others.
Everyone tells the same story. That they have no choice, that they are forced to rely on the charity of others, because of the crippling effect of rising food prices.
Meagre earnings
In Islamic scripture, it is part and parcel of a good human being's duty to provide food for the poor and the helpless.
At Sabri restaurant you can feed an impoverished Karachi resident for 20 Pakistani rupees (33 US cents; 16 pence).
But just a year ago the same charitable act would have cost you 15 cents - less than half what it costs today.
The jump in the price of food in Pakistan has forced many into destitution.
Ayesha Begum is among the hungry who are queuing for food in Karachi.
Most weeks she visits this restaurant three or four times. Sometimes, when times are really bad, she comes twice a day.
"What can I do?" she asks as she awaits her turn to get a dish of beef and chicken gravy. "I have no option.
"My husband works in a factory, and I have seven children. His salary hasn't been increased in two years.
"The meagre earnings he makes used to be just about enough to feed us all, but now the price of food is so high we can't afford anything."
No wheat
Prices in Karachi's markets have jumped to their highest level in 30 years.
In Empress Market, one of the city's largest vegetable markets, Pervez Begum, 59, has come in the hope that she can fill her bags with food for that evening's dinner.
But after having gone from stall to stall, from cart to cart, bargaining with the vegetable sellers in the markets over the price of their goods, she returns home empty handed.
"I am a single woman, a widow, and I have no children to look after me," she says.
"The only money I make comes from selling coins to commuters who need small change for their public transport.
"That doesn't make me very much. I thought today I could come and buy some wheat for my dinner, but I can't afford it."
This is becoming a critical problem for Pakistan's people.
The price of wheat, something that most Pakistanis eat in their daily diet, rose 26% in just one month.
Financial assistance
Pakistan's new government says it is doing all it can to ease the burden of the country's poor.
In the recent budget, it announced the Benazir Income Support Programme.
The plan is to hand out $15 (£7.50) a month to low income families, to help them with the higher cost of living.
But many Pakistanis say that at the rate prices are rising, that is hardly going to help.
Abbas Raza, one of millions of Pakistanis who qualifies for the extra money, is haggling in the market over the price of a few potatoes for his family's dinner.
"My son is the only person in my family who is still earning," he says on the way back to his house.
"We spend most of his earnings on rent. Whatever else we have left, we have to make do with. It was tough before, but it's almost impossible now."
Questions, not answers
Back at home, his wife Mudassar Raza complains bitterly about her husband's inability to bring back anything substantial from the vegetable market.
She had planned to cook a beef and potato stew for dinner for the family, but had to make do with just a few potatoes. It was all her husband could afford.
"What difference will $15 make?" she asks pointedly as she peels her paltry sum of potatoes.
"Not much. $15 isn't worth five dollars these days. Why doesn't the government create more jobs in Pakistan so that older people like my husband can go out and get work?
"Why doesn't the government sort out our electricity problems, so that when we do have food we can cook a full meal without the lights going off on us?"
So many questions, yet the new government does not have many answers.
'Damaged economy'
Kaiser Bengali, an economic consultant for Pakistan's new government, helped the new administration work out its financial spending plans in the recent budget.
He counters the criticism that this new administration has failed to fix Pakistan's problems quickly enough.
"We inherited a damaged economy from the previous regime," he says, alluding to the rule of President Pervez Musharraf.
"The headline numbers you saw, the growth that was talked about, that was all just perception.
"There was a perception created by the regime that Pakistan was doing well, but it was all false growth - in the services sector, without any real foundation. It will take the new administration some time to sort out the economic issues here."
But the new administration has political problems to sort out first.
The criticism it faces is that so much time is spent on in-fighting and jostling for seats that not enough attention is paid to the economy.
While their government figures out what steps to take next, Pakistanis have no choice, but to wait and enjoy life's simple pleasures.
One of the few free recreational activities for poor and lower middle class Karachi residents is to head to the city's beaches on Sundays, with their families.
Here they can indulge in fresh sea air, and for a few short hours, escape from the worries of soaring prices and unpaid bills back in the city.
All they can do now is hope that a brighter future for Pakistan is on the horizon.

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