‘Eating less, travelling less’: How Pakistanis are coping with sky-high inflation

The worst part is that there seems to be no light at the end of this tunnel. Those in power keep repeating the same mistakes and the poor end up paying the price.
Published February 28, 2023

Someone sleeps hungry tonight. Or at least tries to.

It’s not really easy to sleep on an empty stomach. Or when your ears are ringing with the hunger-induced screams of your child. Or when you are worried sick about where you’d find the money to pay the utility bills, or for your child’s school fees or even a meal the next day.

With weekly inflation surging above 40 per cent, millions of Pakistanis have found their purchasing power further eroded, with many struggling to cover even the most basic necessities. Meanwhile, those at the helm of power scramble to put in stop gap measures by imposing more taxes and blocking imports to shore up the country’s foreign reserves that have fallen to critical levels over the last few months.

Monthly inflation rate from Jan 2022-Jan 2023
Monthly inflation rate from Jan 2022-Jan 2023

Inflation is more than statistics

“We are solely reliant on God, we cannot make ends meet in this inflation,” said 55-year-old Imam Ali, who works as a security guard in Karachi’s FB Area. “If our children ask for something, we simply make excuses. If we eat one time, the second meal is hard to manage … we tell the children to just sleep.”

Hailing from a small village near Nawabshah, Ali lost most of his livestock and crops in 2020 due to the floods, forcing him to come to Karachi to find a job. Ever since, he has been working as a security guard, earning a meagre Rs15,000 a month. The minimum wage in Sindh is mandated at Rs25,000.

“We eat meat only on the day of Bakra Eid. The whole year, we can only have meat if someone offers it to us, otherwise, we cannot buy it with our own money,” he said.

Change in prices of mutton and beef from 2019-2023
Change in prices of mutton and beef from 2019-2023

According to economists, one of the major reasons for the current inflationary trend are the 2022 floods that inundated almost a third of the country, destroying thousands of acres of agricultural land and creating a shortage of food produce. Another key reason are the additional tax measures announced by Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, who presented an IMF-dictated ‘mini-budget’ that increased the GST along with another hike in natural gas and fuel prices.

Two measures — raising the federal excise duty (FED) on cigarettes and increasing the general sales tax (GST) rate from 17 pc to 18pc — have been immediately implemented through statutory regulatory orders (SROs) as part of the government’s efforts to raise more funds. The Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) expects to generate Rs115bn from these two measures.

The Finance (Supple­mentary) Act, 2023, is supposed to help ‘balance’ this year’s budget by holding down the deficit to targeted levels, taking the country a step closer to the final deal with the IMF.

Meanwhile, the government already raised fuel prices earlier this year, including a Rs22.20 jump in petrol and a Rs17.20 hike in diesel rates. The new prices of petroleum products stand at Rs272 per litre for petrol, Rs280 for high-speed diesel, or HSD, Rs196.68 for light diesel oil (LDO) and Rs202.73 for kerosene.

These prices were increased due to the further devaluation of the rupee, which makes imported fuel more expensive, according to the Ministry of Finance. Moreover, the government announced that it aims to collect Rs310bn in six months from gas consumers.

For Ali, the surge in petrol prices has made it difficult for him to even travel to his village to meet his family, who relocated to a temporary shelter near Nawabshah after his village was flooded again in the 2022 floods. “Earlier, we could travel to Karachi [from Nawabshah] for Rs700 to Rs800. Now, the bus drivers demand up to Rs1500,” he added.

Inho ne jeena haram kar diya hai [They have made our life impossible]. If we buy one thing (ingredient), we can’t buy the second (ingredient). If we have two, then the third is missing. We are only surviving. Bus Allah chala raha hai, Allah maalik hai. [God is running things for us, God is the caretaker],” he complained.

His income has not changed in the last three years despite the exponential rise in prices. He cannot afford to send his eight children to school and they stay with their mother at the shelter. “Hum bache nai parha sakte [We can’t educate our children]. It’s not within our capacity,” he added.

The school is not only built far away from his home but is also desolated, inhabiting only the livestock of the local feudal lord.

Fuel prices, meanwhile, have a direct impact on every sector of the economy, as is evident in the sharp spike in the prices of consumer goods. Even as income levels largely remain stagnant, the prices of essentials such as wheat flour, basmati rice, chicken, eggs, onions and cooking oil have witnessed a phenomenal jump, many of them doubling over the last four years.

Prices of consumer essentials from 2020-2023. Price points are taken from January of each year.
Prices of consumer essentials from 2020-2023. Price points are taken from January of each year.

Rukhsana Bibi, aged 41, who works as domestic help, paints a picture of constant struggles and compromises. “Earlier, I would come [to my place of work] for Rs100 but now I have to spend Rs300,” she said.

“What we earn in a month, our expenses are double that,” she added.

Bibi earns a meagre Rs3,000 to Rs4,000 from every home she works at. Like Ali, she has to compromise on the number of meals she and her family can have every day. “We used to eat three times, but now we compromise on one meal,” she said.

Commenting on food scarcity in the market, she said, “Wheat flour is barely available. Our kids stand in line for days to get one sack of aata (Wheat flour), and that too is expensive.”

 Change in prices of wheat flour and basmati rice from 2019-2023
Change in prices of wheat flour and basmati rice from 2019-2023

In these times, the frequency of work available to her has also been impacted. “The wages are low, but we are forced to work for whatever we can get … we have to feed our family so we do it,” she lamented.

Sending her children to school has also become a challenge. Earlier, she would send her children to a private school, but now she can hardly manage to send them to a public school, where there may be no tuition, but she struggles to buy their books, stationery, food, etc.

“It’s become very difficult to eat … we cook once and eat it thrice,” said Dilshad Begum, another domestic help working in Karachi.

“We are eating less, travelling less,” she said, listing ways she, like millions of other working-class persons, are trying to minimise expenses. “Bache bicharay taras rahe hain khane peene ke liye [Children are desperate to eat and drink],” she lamented.

Like Rukhsana, Begum said she is forced to work for whatever wages are being offered, but can barely make ends meet with her Rs10,000 monthly income.

Nadeem Uddin Siddique, 60, who owns a small shop, said small businesses have been impacted the most by the inflation. “I am a businessman and my business has been greatly affected] (due to inflation). My weekly investment of Rs50,000 has increased to Rs100,000,” he explained.

“My life’s savings have been consumed due to this inflation,” he lamented, adding that, more than anything, the transport costs to bring goods to his shop have substantially increased. “I would bring the goods to the shop via an auto rickshaw for Rs200, but now it takes no less than Rs400.”

“We are shrinking ourselves. If we had four cups of tea before, now we have one,” he continued. “Ye jo hukamarano ki begairti hai usko hum bardasht hi karskte hai aur kuch nai kar sakte [We can only tolerate the shamelessness of those in charge and nothing else],” he added.

A 22-year-old MBBS student at a private university, Hania Waseem, said that inflation has made her daily commute quite difficult. “Earlier, we had to spend Rs15,000 per month but now it’s Rs30,000 per month. If you travel daily and were paying Rs300, now have to pay at least Rs500.”

 Percentage change in prices of petrol and LPG from 2019-2023
Percentage change in prices of petrol and LPG from 2019-2023

Speaking about the rising fees of educational institutions in Pakistan, she explained, “When we got admissions, our fees amounted to Rs950,000. For the new batches, the fees have gone up to Rs3,500,000. Jitne mai hum paanch saal mai graduate karen ge wo bechare abhi ek saal ki fees dainge khaali [The money we would spend in five years to graduate, they (new students) would spend the same amount in only one year].”

To save money, she thinks twice before ordering food. “That’s the only thing one can do: order less from outside and eat food at home … you have to spend money on other things, for example, you have to buy books no matter how expensive they get,” she pointed out.

 Change in prices of chicken and eggs from 2019-2023
Change in prices of chicken and eggs from 2019-2023

Waseem was of the belief that if inflation is a necessary measure, it should affect everyone equally, particularly the elite class. Its adverse effects should not be limited to only the poor, working and middle classes. “Sirf ek selected awam na pisse [only a selected group of the population shouldn’t bear the brunt],” she emphasised.

Daniyal Sattar, aged 26, is a freelancer based in Karachi and works for foreign clients. Due to inflation and the rapid devaluation of the rupee, he now keeps his savings in dollars. Earlier, if he were to receive a payment of $1000 for any project, he would convert $500-600 into rupees and keep the rest as it is in his PayPal or Payoneer account.

 US Dollar to Pakistani Rupee exchange rate over a year — Source: tradingeconomics.com
US Dollar to Pakistani Rupee exchange rate over a year — Source: tradingeconomics.com

“I have also postponed most of my international travel plans but that comes in luxury, it is not a basic need,” he said.

Despite inflation not having a major impact on his lifestyle, he sees the deterioration of the rupee as worrisome. “It is really bad for our country and our people and for me as well. Because regardless of how much better the exchange rate I get, it will always get balanced by the inflation in our country. Yes, I have a competitive edge over other people who are earning in PKR, working in Pakistan, but still, it’s bad … it’s bad for me as well”.

Whenever Sattar has to buy a subscription to any foreign service that requires dollars, he feels how weak the rupee has become. Additionally, tech gadgets are becoming more inaccessible to lower and middle-income persons.

For Ali, Rukhsana, Dilshad, Waseem, Sattar and millions like them, life has become a daily struggle. Many lie awake at night, worried about the most basic necessities, even as the prime minister builds a private militia of special assistants and the finance minister points fingers at his predecessors.

The worst part is that there seems to be no light at the end of this tunnel. Those in power keep repeating the same mistakes and the poor end up paying the price. “There is nothing they [government] don’t know already … the causes, the impacts,” said Sattar.

“I would say what any other Pakistani would say … tax the rich. It makes no sense that a person who makes Rs2m pays the same price for fuel as someone who earns Rs25,000,” he argued.

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