THE white collar workers have been forced to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. In some cases three meals a day have been cut down to two. The slightly better-off ones have shifted from cars to two-wheelers. Small business owners have taken up part-time jobs with ride-hailing cabs.

This may sound like something out of the Great Depression, but this is today’s Pakistan. Dawn spoke to a cross-section of salaried class people and none appeared to be immune from the recent currency shocks and the overall economic downturn.

Over the past couple of days, the rupee plummeted to record levels against the dollar and on Sunday the petroleum prices saw a massive bump of around Rs35. And with that the floodgates of inflation have opened wider for the working class that was already reeling under exorbitant costs of living.

Weekly inflation, measured by Sensitive Price Index, posted an increase of 32.57 per cent on a year-on-year basis ending Jan 26 due to a massive surge in prices of both food and non-food items, especially vegetables like onions, according to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics.

During the week under review, the prices of 25 items increased, six decreased and 20 remained unchanged.

Whether a small business owner or a salaried worker barely making Rs50,000 a month from two jobs, many aren’t sure what happened to the economy, but they do know political instability has a lot to do with the mess the country is in where politicians are least bothered about the concerns of the masses.

“In such backbreaking inflation, I have removed my children from a regular school and admitted them to a lower quality one whose fee is 70 per cent less. From using olive oil for cooking due to health reason we have shifted to regular oil. After this political instability and governments changing frequently, we are now forced to use low quality products.

Electricity bills have doubled in the last year and a half. The petrol price inflation has hit so hard that from driving a car I have now moved to a motorbike since June. Now we’re hearing the prices of every basic commodity are going to increase further, so I’m wondering if I’d even be able to afford a bicycle,“ says Ali Mohsin, who runs a small hair salon on Ferozepur Road.

“Life started getting tough in the last few months of the PTI government and has not eased for a single day since then. The wheat that used to cost me Rs2,000 per maund now costs at least Rs5,800; flour is either not available, is very costly or is of poor, inedible quality, especially the one sold by the government. So many people have gone jobless also,” he narrates the ordeal he and his friends have had to endure.

For some salaried individuals, the monthly income hasn’t seen a raise for years, but perpetual price hikes have shot up their expenses, leading to a severe financial imbalance and more than that, mental stress.

“I make Rs29,000 a month and my monthly grocery costs at least Rs25,000. I need 60kg flour and 8kg ghee every month, while expenses like education are secondary when basic food needs can’t be fulfilled. In such extreme circumstances my family has had to skip a meal and we only have two meals a day now. Petrol is so expensive that I can’t even afford to travel on my motorbike and for most chores I’m compelled to walk over the last 3-4 months. And this is after working two jobs. Since the PTI government took over, a Rs1,000 note feels like just Rs10. The prices of every utility and food items are set to shoot up drastically, and I’m afraid people might resort to robberies,” complains Muhammad Shahzad, a technical employee with a media organisation.

Faizan, 27, who moonlights with a ride-hailing service with his motorcycle, says after their small artificial jewellery business took a hit as soon as the incumbent coalition government took over, he was forced to work part-time with a ride-hailing service to cover for the losses.

“During the PTI government, I could still get two litres of petrol in Rs300 and our business was doing well too. But since the government changed, we suffered heavily; the lead we get for our jewellery now costs Rs800 per kilogram, and it forced me to ride a bike for a ride-hailing service to make ends meet. Oil, flour, ghee, sugar everything is becoming expensive by the day, but salaries aren’t increasing. We are all at the mercy of God now. Our country is heavily dependent on petrol and dollar and the prices of both are unstoppable.”

For the slightly well-to-do salaried individuals, the skyrocketing prices of everyday commodities have laid into focus their basic needs with the ‘wants’, or luxuries, taking a backseat.

“If I was earning Rs30,000 a month 10 years ago, I was comfortable, but now even Rs150,000 a month from two jobs feels less because of the rates of essential items increasing rapidly. And at the end of every month, I’m standing at zero balance. My biggest expense is petrol because even if one of the schools I work in is five minutes away from home, I can’t walk to it because of safety concerns. If the country was safe enough for women I could have walked to it, saving whatever amount I spend on fuel. Public transport is also highly costly because of mounting petrol prices,” Sana Ali, a teacher, tells Dawn.

But she says regardless of where one worked or what one did, every move is now calculated. “The day you get your salary, you have to plan and think how you’re going to divide it over the entire month and fulfil your basic needs.”

Dr Ali Cheema, associate professor of economics at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, says there haven’t been such high rates of sustained inflation in this country. That he says is because the country has been exposed to an inflationary global commodity price cycle as well as the dependence on oil and global commodities. “On top of that there have been huge numbers of supply shocks. Income isn’t growing at the same rate so real income is declining, so obviously people are going to find it more and more difficult. Inflation is a global phenomenon and all economies have faced this cycle. But we use monetary policy to curb inflation when we could partly use the fiscal instrument to slow the economy down.”

Due to the country’s heavy dependence on oil and food imports, Dr Cheema suggested lowering dependence on fossil fuel imports to lessen the impact of the global commodity price cycle as well as revival of agriculture. The latter, he says, would require structural changes and changing crop patterns to partly mitigate some of these factors.

Published in Dawn, January 30th, 2023

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