PAKISTAN: Flour shortages cause despair ahead of Ramadan

Photo: Kamila Hyat/IRIN
People like Zulquernain fear rising prices will deter customers who usually buy `roti’ (flat bread) in increased numbers during Ramadan

LAHORE, 28 August 2008 (IRIN) – Rubina Aslam, 30, cannot read or write. She has never been to school, but considers herself “fortunate to be married to a man who earns nearly 20,000 rupees (approx US$266) a month as a draughtsman”.

But now even this budget – generous by the standards of most households – is being stretched to the limit. The family is in debt to store owners from whom they have bought chicken, eggs, bread, lentils and other items.

“We owe over Rs 6,000 (about US$78) now and can’t afford to pay it back,” said Rubina. She also faces another issue. “Ramadan is approaching in a few days. Everyone expects a generous feast at Sehri [the pre-dawn meal that starts the fast] and at Iftar [when the fast ends at sunset], and I just do not know how to manage,” Rubina told IRIN.

Apart from her own three children and husband, Rubina must also provide meals for her parents-in-law and an unmarried brother-in-law who is a student.

“Consumption increases in most households during Ramadan. Everyone spends more,” says Umar Ilyas, 40, who owns a grocery store. “Many buy almost double the usual amount of rice and flour,” he said.

But this time round there is despair. Shortages of wheat flour, the staple for most families, have been reported even in Lahore. “Sometimes, even at the Sunday bazaars set up by the government to provide items at controlled rates to people, you have to stand for hours to buy a single 20kg bag of flour,” said Shakila Bibi, 35.

Fixed wheat prices – in theory

While the Punjab government has fixed the price at Rs 365 (about US$5) per 20kg, it is often almost impossible to buy it at this price, with many sellers asking Rs 450 (about US$6) per 20 kg.

Acknowledging the problem, the Punjab chief minister, Mian Shahbaz Sharif, has said: “`Atta’ [wheat flour] will be sold at a fixed price of Rs 300 (about $4) per 20kg bag in Ramadan.”

Food price inflation is running at over 20 percent, according to official statistics. In July, according to the Consumer Price Index produced by the central government’s Federal Bureau of Statistics, it soared to a record 33.81 percent, with vegetable prices rising by over 16 percent, tomato prices by over 100 percent and onions by over 15 percent.

“These items are basic. We cannot manage without them,” said Rubina.

Photo: Kamila Hyat/IRIN
People like Zulquernain fear rising prices will deter customers who usually buy `roti’ (flat bread) in increased numbers during Ramadan

Wheat being smuggled out of Punjab Province

The flour issue has also triggered internal controversy. In Lahore on 27 August, the chairman of the Pakistan Flour Millers Association, Naeem Butt, addressing a conference called by millers, asked the Punjab government to “lift the illegal ban on inter-provincial movement of wheat” and fix a uniform price across the country.

The problem of wheat being smuggled out of the Punjab and sold in other provinces at higher rates is said to have contributed to shortages within the province.

The situation everywhere is grim. Muhammad Zulqernain, 24, who makes ‘rotis’ (flat bread) and fried ‘parathas’ (bread cooked in melted butter) to earn his living, says: “We usually do a roaring business in Ramadan. But now we are suffering losses because few can afford to buy one roti at Rs 7 [about nine US cents] a piece. It cost only Rs. 5 [6.5 US cents] a few months ago.”

Responding to the situation, the Karachi Stock Exchange has begun a free meal delivery scheme, feeding over 3,000 people a day, according to a press release it put out in July.

Last week a boy caught stealing two kilograms of flour told local newsmen he was compelled to steal because his mother and 10-year-old sister, who suffered from tuberculosis, had been without food for three days.

As Rubina Aslam says: “No one is doing anything for us, and we fear the time may come when we must remove our children from school if we are to eat.”


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