Pakistan

Pakistan: Rising food prices hit the poor hardest

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KARACHI, 23 October 2008 (IRIN) - Zaheer Ahmed, a daily wage earner in Karachi, finds it increasingly difficult to meet household bills on the Rs 350 (US$4.37) a day he earns.

After deducting the cost of one meal and two cups of tea that he has during the day for Rs 60 (73 US cents) and the bus fare (another Rs 60 or 73 cents), he is left with Rs 230 ($2.82) to take home.

"Ten years ago, I was earning Rs 70 [86 US cents per day] but I was a happy man. I had enough to eat yet there was a little to put aside," said Ahmed.

While Ahmed may not understand what a 25 percent inflation rate means to Pakistan's economy, he does know that he is far poorer than he ever was and that his family "never has enough to eat however hard I work".

"My wages may have increased, but they have not kept pace with the runaway food prices," he said.

A 16 October 2008 Oxfam briefing paper entitled Double-Edged Prices said the price of wheat flour in Pakistan increased 100 percent between January 2007 and April 2008. Dawn newspaper, said the poorest 20 percent of the population spent 50-58 percent of their income on cereals alone.

In the wake of a severe wheat crisis compounded by the smuggling of wheat to Afghanistan, the price of the staple 'roti' bread has risen to Rs 6 (0.07 US cents). Rice, pulses, edible oil and sugar have also gone up sharply. Angry masses are coming out onto the streets every day demanding the new government to do more, say experts.

"The general feeling is that there is no difference between the previous and the present government's policies to address looming food insecurity, energy crises and price hikes," said Mohammad Zia-ur-Rehman, national coordinator for the Global Coalition Against Poverty (GCAP).

"We want public accountability, just governance, less spending on defence and no foreign loans," said Rehman.

Nationwide rallies held 17-19 October to mark the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty demanded an immediate freeze of utility prices; new policies to combat the current food, energy and security crises; land reforms; and strong action against corruption and smuggling, according to Rehman.

"A nation of freeloaders"

Abdul Sattar Edhi, head of the well-known Edhi Foundation charity, warned of mass deaths due to hunger.

However, he said citizens were equally to blame for the current crisis.

"We consume tea worth Rs 500 million [US$6 million] and Rs 300 million worth of cigarettes. Nobody is willing to drink one less cup of tea or give up smoking," he said.

He said the government had been left to clean up the economic mess left by military rule. "They cannot do anything to bail us out except ask for loans from the West," he said.

"We are a nation of freeloaders who will steal water and electricity from the government and then waste it too," he said. "We don't pay our taxes. So who are we to complain or make tall demands?"

Seventy million of the country's 168 million people have fallen into Oxfam's "extremely poor" category due to food inflation.

The World Food Programme has warned that 77 million Pakistanis are food insecure. For more on this click here.

The Oxfam report said food shortages had been deliberately created by traders to raise prices. It also lamented the absence of authentic data on food production.

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