A shutter-down strike is being observed by traders in parts of the country today, prompted by steep electricity bills and inflation, both of which have reached unprecedented levels.
The strike is a continuation of the ongoing protest demonstrations led by traders and the public in various cities. Fuelled by their frustration with inflated power bills, people had taken to the streets in recent days against unbearable price hikes and inflated bills.
Last month, the power regulator raised the national average tariff by around Rs5 per unit, pushing the base unit power tariff from Rs24.82 to Rs29.78. On Aug 22, the government once again sought to raise the power rate by Rs3.55 per unit.
However, reacting to the outrage during interaction with journalists a day ago, Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar called it a “non-issue”, insisting that it was being raised by some political parties as a “tool” in their election campaigns.
“It is not a very serious issue, but political parties are in election mode and using it as a social cause,” the interim prime minister had told senior journalists and news anchors on Friday.
However, the interim information maintains that some parts of the media misreported the caretaker PM’s interaction with journalists and the premier did not dismiss the matter as a non-issue.
Protest in Karachi
Earlier this week, Jamaat-i-Islami had called on traders and citizens to participate in today’s strike in Karachi in protest against the escalating inflation.
Speaking to Dawn.com, JI spokesperson Zahid Askari said that the strike was being conducted “peacefully” today. He mentioned that transporters had voluntarily suspended their operations.
Askari also claimed that none of the party workers were resorting to violence in any part of the city to force the closure of businesses, adding that transport on the roads was also thin in response to the strike call.
Likewise, Atiq Mir, the chairman of All Karachi Tajir Ittehad (AKTI), stated that the organisation had issued a call for a two-day shutter-down strike yesterday and today to protest against the inflated electricity bills and the overall surge in inflation.
“We also conveyed to the shopkeepers that participation in the strike was voluntary, recognising the financial challenges faced by all of us during these trying times,” he told Dawn.com.
Mir disclosed that markets were currently closed, and the full extent of the strike’s impact would become evident in the afternoon, which is when businesses typically reopen in accordance with the city’s cultural norms.
Sindh CM urges calm
Caretaker Sindh Chief Minister, retired Justice Maqbool Baqar, acknowledged the challenges faced by the citizens and affirmed that staging a protest was a fundamental democratic right.
In a statement, the chief minister noted that those participating in the protest should also be mindful of not causing inconvenience to fellow citizens.
He further pointed out that both the federal and provincial governments were actively working to alleviate the burden of the public.
“The authorities should also take proactive measures to maintain a peaceful atmosphere during the protest,” stated the provincial chief executive.
In a separate statement, Karachi’s Deputy Mayor, Salman Abdullah Murad, affirmed that the right to protest is a fundamental aspect of democracy. However, he highlighted that any act resulting in harm to public property during such protests would not be tolerated.
He issued a stern warning, stating, “Law enforcement agencies will take decisive action against those who engage in anarchic behavior.”
Furthermore, the deputy mayor called upon the police to prioritise the safety of both the public and their property.
Strike in parts of KP
Meanwhile, in the Malakand and Hazara divisions, traders and transporters called for a closure of markets and a freeze in transport in protest against the mounting electricity bills.
Throughout the morning, traders have closed their businesses in multiple locations, including Shangla, Bisham, Alpuri, Puran, Swat, Mingora, Khwazakhela, Barikot, Dir Timergara, Warai, as well as in Malakand, Butkhela, and Dargai. The strike has also affected parts of Hazara division, Kohistan, Battagram, Mansehra, Abbottabad, Haripur, and other regions, where traders have shuttered their shops and transporters have parked their vehicles.
Shujat Ali, President of the Shangla trade union, lamented that their businesses had been continuously harmed by rulers in all eras.
He expressed frustration over promises made to international organisations like the IMF, claiming that such commitments were now endangering the lives of impoverished individuals who were driven to the brink of suicide.
He explained to Dawn.com that they had no choice but to close down markets across the district because they could no longer afford electricity bills and even basic necessities for their families.
Sultan Khan, president of a transport union, said that the government’s actions had left them with no alternative but to go on strike. He emphasised that it was time to compel the government to show compassion for the struggling masses, as people had exhausted their resources, and sold their family valuables, leaving them with nothing but despair and thoughts of self-harm.
The JI also shared pictures of closed shops in the Upper Dir district of the Malakand division and Hazara region’s Abbottabad district.
Mixed reaction in Peshawar
Despite business closures in various parts of KP, the response in Peshawar appeared to be mixed. While some shops remained closed, others chose to keep their businesses open.
A correspondent from Dawn.com during a visit at Peshawar’s Ashraf Road, noted that over half of the market was operational, with only a handful of shops closed. It’s worth mentioning that this area serves as a central market, drawing a substantial daily footfall.
Closure of business in Battagram
Meanwhile, the main market along the Karakoram Highway in KP’s Battagram wore a deserted look as it remained shut in response to the call by the JI.
Speaking to Dawn.com, local JI leader Anwar Baig stressed the need to set aside political affiliations and unite in these challenging times.
Naimatullah Khaksar, a local trader, highlighted that numerous traders had suffered significant losses due to inflation. Each morning brought new taxes and fluctuating rates, leaving them in a state of confusion regarding the viability of their businesses, he added.
He emphasised the urgency for the government to implement corrective measures to bolster the economy. “The continuous depreciation of the Pakistani currency against the dollar had eroded the purchasing power of traders, causing local consumers to bear the brunt of inflation.”
JI organises rallies in Punjab
According to the visuals shared by the JI on its account on X (formerly Twitter), traders in various cities of Punjab also observed a shutter-down strike.
Rows of shops can be seen shut in the pictures shared by the party from Punjab’s Jhang and Sialkot districts while those from the Nankana Sahib district show JI supporters carrying party flags gathered on the streets to protest against the power bills.
The JI said its district emir Hafiz Habib Zia addressed the protestors in the Panwan village.
Similar scenes can be witnessed in the pictures shared by the JI of Bahawalpur, where the party’s city emir Syed Zeeshan Akhtar was leading a rally, it said.
Meanwhile, Babar Mahmood, president of the Electronics Market Traders Union in Lahore, said the bills received this month “exceed our earnings”.
“There is a growing disconnect between the general public and those in positions of power,” he added.
On the other hand, Lahore’s Township Traders Union president Ajmal Hashmi told AFP that “everyone is participating because the situation has become unbearable now,” adding that “some relief must be given so people can put food on the table.”
Later at night, interim Information Minister Murtaza Solangi claimed in a video statement that PM Kakar’s statement on exorbitant electricity bills being a non-issue was misreported.
The video also showed a clip of the PM from the interaction, where a journalist asked him about high electricity prices being a “serious issue of law and order”.
In his reply, PM Kakar said: “Let me assure you that it is not that it is a very serious issue of law and order. But it is an issue indeed, which is certainly being magnified.
“We also understand that all political parties are in election mode at present … all those who have contributed to [this problem] have turned this into an issue and trying to take this forward as a social cause.
“We understand this. If I had to contest the election, I might have done the same.”
Referring to this response, Solangi said PM Kakar had denied that the issue of high electricity bills had lead to “anarchy”.
“But he did not say that the problem of electricity bills was a non-issue,” he insisted, adding that the PM “did not say at any point that the pain of the people was unfair”.
Additional input from AFP.