Footprints: When cheap ghee loses its utility

Published June 17, 2022
CUSTOMERS are bunched together in a scrum around the cashier’s booth as they wait for OTP codes on their phones.—Photos by the writer
CUSTOMERS are bunched together in a scrum around the cashier’s booth as they wait for OTP codes on their phones.—Photos by the writer

HOW much does a packet of ghee cost? Rs650 a kilo if you ask the well-heeled; Rs300, humiliation and a few hours of waiting for those less fortunate.

The air inside the Diwan-e-Khas Utility Store on Gizri Boulevard is rank with desperation. Tired citizens, both young and old, have lined up for two packets of subsidised ghee. Some sit, some squat; waiting for their turn as the line inches forward. They’ve been here for hours. Ask any one of them why they’re putting up with such misery, and they’ll tell you they cannot otherwise put food on the table.

A government announcement on June 9 had promised subsidised ghee at selected Utility Stores across the country at a rate of Rs300 per kg. Each customer was to be allowed two pouches of one kilogramme each, along with some other items — sugar, toothpaste, soap bars, detergent, etc — on subsidised rates.

To avail the subsidy, the purchasers were asked to provide a copy of their CNIC and SIM number to staff. A one-time password (OTP) — sent via SMS to the purchaser’s SIM number and to be displayed to the storekeeper — was set as a condition to avoid ‘cheating’.

“Only the poor come to the Utility Stores, and they treat us like beggars,” shares Shehnaz, in her late 30s and looking extremely exhausted. A breast cancer patient, she is accompanied by her two young daughters.

“I asked the store staff to open the doors so we could have some air inside, but they refused,” she says, wiping the sweat from her brow. She is waiting for the confirmation message to come through.

“My husband barely makes Rs18,000 a month. My eldest daughter is appearing for her matric exams privately. I do not have money to pay for the little one’s fee. I had to take her out. When I heard that cooking oil would be more than Rs400 per litre and petrol prices had also gone up, my heart sank.”

It is not easy getting inside the store. The guards only let 50 people in at a time. They have been instructed to keep the store’s glass doors and iron gates locked to avoid any ‘incident’.

Back at the cash counter, an air cooler and split AC set at 28 degrees fail miserably to provide relief. Both cashier and customer suffer the sweltering heat and suffocating humidity. The refrigerators — usually stocked with chilled drinks — have been emptied out. It is a cost-cutting measure, a staff member explains.

The customers have nothing to say to each other. They stand with their heads down, lost in thought. You can almost breathe in the helplessness in the air.

Between the queues, a middle-aged man collapses due to exhaustion. He is still clutching two bars of soap and a packet of masala. He has been in line for more than an hour, accompanied by a teenaged daughter.

As other customers rush to lift him up, the store’s staff stand there, frozen till someone screams and asks for a chair and a glass of water. Someone shouts for the doors to be opened for air. The minute the man regains consciousness, he asks his daughter if it is their turn yet.

Desperate times

Rizwan Sikandar, a security guard who makes Rs18,000 a month, is waiting for his sisters outside the store.

“I work the night shift, so I was able to come here with my married sisters to get ghee for our families. My wife and sisters are illiterate and had been sent back twice because they did not have mobile phones,” he explains. “We have gone from three meals a day to two. With this mehngai, it seems we will soon have food enough for one meal only.”

He says he’s been to three Utility Stores but can’t find any flour since the subsidy was announced. “I went early, but the staff said stocks were yet to arrive. It’s poor quality flour. We can’t use it unless we mix it with something else.”

“The kids are hungry at home,” worries Sonia, a housemaid. “I have been here two hours for ghee. The staff want our CNICs and registered SIMs, or they won’t sign and give us what we need. They humiliate us by making us wait for hours.”

“Everything is too expensive now. My landlord raised the rent to Rs10,000. Then the electricity bill went up,” shares Shahida, another maid. “We have to leave work to get ghee and flour, and end up spending most of the day here.”

Published in Dawn,June 17th, 2022

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