Dickensian misery

Published March 26, 2023

This will be perhaps the toughest Ramazan that most of our young citizenry has experienced in their entire lives: food prices skyrocketing due to increased demand, energy prices at unbearable levels, and new taxes carving out a large slice from household incomes.

In addition, analysts are already warning that we can expect inflationary pressures to get progressively worse over the remainder of the month.

Only the privileged few may still be able to enjoy the little luxuries of this month of fasts and feasts — elaborate iftar buffets, or even breaking bread with friends and extended family. For the vast majority, it will be spent worrying about how to put two square meals on the table as they deal with the worst economic crisis this country has seen in recent memory.

Consider the news: short-term inflation had surged to an eye-watering 46.7pc year-over-year in the week that ended on March 22, with onion, wheat, gas, petrol and diesel, tea, rice and egg prices almost double or more of what they were last year. Even compared to just a week earlier, prices were up by 2pc, led by a 72pc increase in tomato prices, a 42pc increase in wheat prices, around 11pc increase in the prices of potatoes and bananas, and a more than 7pc increase in the price of tea. The numbers show that Pakistanis are losing their purchasing power almost by the day — in other words, they can afford to purchase less food than they could just a day before.

If one wants a measure of how desperately destitute the most vulnerable segments of our society have become, one need only go over recent reports of stampedes and general chaos at the various distribution points where government officials have been handing out bags of wheat. There are reports of people passing away from exhaustion as they waited for a handout: an elderly man in Toba Tek Singh, and a woman in Muzaffargarh.

Meanwhile, retailers have continued with their hoarding and cruel profiteering. Price gouging seems to have become as integral a part of Pakistan’s Ramazan traditions as sehri and iftar. Despite the administration issuing official price lists for various items, shop owners set their own rates based on their whims and desires. Reason with them, and they have excuses aplenty about the official rates being ‘unrealistic’ and ‘unfair’.

In Sindh, the provincial administration has mobilised 100 officers to check profiteering in Karachi and given them magisterial powers to enforce official rates. It remains to be seen whether the measure will improve or worsen the situation. Such efforts usually target the end retailer instead of the actual decision-makers manipulating the markets from behind the scenes. Unless the real culprits are brought to book, it is unlikely anything will change.

Published in Dawn, March 26th, 2023

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