A sharp increase in flour prices has increased footfall to charity kitchens in the capital
slamabad, known for its posh houses and trendy expensive cafes, is a city of wealthy and influential people. Wide avenues, neatly marked lanes, green and clean medians, rows of flowerbeds and clean streets—this is the picture-postcardcapital.The poor man’s Islamabad, a little less visible, exists side by side in sectors where much of the population is lower middle class.Then there are some densely populated slums and squatter settlements.
People queuing up for wheat flour in some parts of the countryare a common sight now. There is general impression that the crisis has had no impact on Islamabad as one sees no such queues.The truth is that many people have feltthe shock of a sharp hike in flour prices.
A 10 kg flour bag is now priced at Rs648 at the Utility Stores in Islamabad, up fromRs248.Considering the shortage of wheat, the stores have reduced the quota per personto three kilograms.“The number of buyers has dropped over the past few weeks,” Azeem Malik, a manager at a Utility Store, tells The News on Sunday.
Malik says that there could be only one reason for that. Peoplecannot afford to buy flour in accordance with their requirements. He also says that the number of people visiting his store for charity packages has also come down.
A 15-kg flour bag sold for Rs972 at the Utility Stores goes for Rs1,980 at a market in F6/1. A shop owner points out that the price has come down a little. “Five days ago, the same flour bag was selling for Rs2,300.”
On the other hand, the number of people eating at langars has risen considerably in recent days. Nooran Bibi, a domestic worker queuing up for a free meal at the Bari Imam shrine,says that she can no longer feed her family of fourdue to the recent hike in flour prices.
Raja Jaffer, a worker at one of the langars, agrees. He says that the rising inflation hasincreased the number of people lining up for free food at the shrine of Islamabad‘s patron saint.
“Previously, only beggars and the needy used to visit the langar khana. Now,a majority comprises labourers and domestic workers.We don’t have exact numbers, but there is a visible increase. No matter how many degs we have, we are always short of free food at the end.”
While the general impression is that the flour shortage has had no impact on the federal capital since there are no such queues here, the truth is that many people are still reeling from theshock of a sharp hike in flour prices.
In somerural areas around Islamabad, people grow wheat and consume it throughout the year. But, in most villages, farming is slowly becoming extinct due to lifestyle and climate changes. For people in these places, the flour shortage is a massive problem.
“We live in a joint family —my parents and my brothers’ families make almost 20 people living in one house. Every week, we need at least three20-kg bags of flour,” says Yasmeen Shareef, a domestic help who lives in Tarnol, on the outskirts of Islamabad. She says thatfor the first time in their livesit has become hard to have enough rotis for all the family members.
At the tandoors, the current price of a plain naan is Rs20; a roghni naan costs Rs 60. Muhammad Safoor, the owner of a busy tandoor in Islamabad, says that prices are not in their hands. “People sometimes blame us, but we have nothing to do with the prices.”
He said a 79-kg flour bag priced at Rs5,500 in April is now selling for Rs13,000. “There has been a more than 100 per cent raise in the price. The dealers have also increased their rates as fuel prices have increased, their cost of supplying flour has also risen. We tried last month to keep the price down, hoping that things would improve. But now we have no choice but to increase the prices.”
Talking about the impact on the purchasing power of his customers, he says those who used to buy ten naans daily now buy five. He agreed that once the prices go up, it is not easy to bring them down. “The flour prices fell a bit during the last week, but most tandoors are selling roti at the same rate.
Safoor also has a naiki ki tokri where people put in whatever money they can spare. This helps provide free rotis for the needy. “Unfortunately, the number of people asking for free roti has increased, and those willing to pay extra are fewer. Still, we give roti to whoever asks for it. That’s the least we can do.”
Besides the private charity initiatives, the government is running the Roti Sub Kay Liyay project under Pakistan Baitul Maal, supported by Sailani Trust and Allah Rakha Trust. A Baitul Maal spokesperson says that under this initiative, dinner is served to 400 people daily at five Shelter Homes in Tarlai, Tarnol, Bhara Kahu, Mandi Mor and Sector G-9.Three food trucks provide food at different spots on three routes covering the twin cities. Each truck serves 600 peopledaily.
Those contributing to charity at this challenging time deserve appreciation, but there is a need also to remember that this time, theinflation has broken the back of not only the poor but also many in the middle and lower-middle classes. If the price hike continues, the image of people fighting over flour bags might become a reality in Islamabad as well.
The writer is a reporter for The News International