A food crisis of sorts looks imminent, as most goods transport companies in the city remain shut
As the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus continues to rise, the government is most likely to extend the lockdown. This could mean the city is headed for a food crisis of sorts, because most goods transport companies in the city remain shut.
Although the city administration has ruled out a possibility of shortage of food supplies, the facts on ground suggest the contrary. The goods transporters aren’t willing to resume their daily, inter-provincial operations, despite repeated instructions given to them by the administration. If the situation persists, maintaining the chain of food as well as essential commodities and goods won’t be easy.
In case the lockdown is stretched, it is also expected that the fear of food shortage will force people to start hoarding. Such a state of affairs cannot be overlooked. Recently, we saw how the frenzied citizens of Lahore resorted to panic buying when the Punjab government announced a three-day lockdown, on March 22. (The lockdown was later extended till April 14.) The people flooded retail shops and department stores in every nook and corner of the city. It was as if the food was going to disappear from the market. Subsequently, the city witnessed an acute shortage of wheat flour and other edibles.
Another aspect of the lockdown in the provincial metropolis is the prices of many edibles and items of daily use which have spiked over the past couple of weeks. The poor segments of the society do not have the buying power to afford them. “Of course, you can say that we are buying more than we require, but then these are no ordinary circumstances,” says Mrs Saima Zahid, a housewife, who is shopping at a superstore in Model Town. “In fact, we are compelled to do so!”
She curses the mafias of hoarders and profiteers for exploiting the situation to their advantage. “Keeping in mind the exorbitant prices of food items, surgical facemasks and hand sanitisers, you can imagine that such shortages will have an adverse effect on grocery, bakery, vegetable and baby food items over the next few days.”
Many seem to share Mrs Zahid’s concerns and foresee a shortage of food commodities together with inflation if the lockdown is extended. They are also worried about the non-availability of wheat flour at retail shops. Zahir Sheikh, a resident of Ravi Road, complains that wheat flour has disappeared from retail shops in his neighbourhood. “If luckily it is available at some shop, the shopkeepers are selling it at exorbitant rates,” he says. He compares this to the recent shortage of disinfectants, hand sanitisers and cleaners.
According to Sheikh, life has come to a standstill in the city but the administration is happy to just shut the people indoors. “Any extension in the lockdown could cause food shortage,” he cautions. “The shopkeepers have exploited the situation by selling commodities at arbitrary prices.”
Talking to TNS, Rana Ishtiaq, president of All Pakistan Goods Transporters Workers’ Union (APGTWU) says that there are as many as 500 goods transport companies in the city but most of them have closed down their businesses because maintaining their daily inter-provincial operations was no longer viable.
“The increasing cost of operations and the lack of staff have made it impossible for us to run the business smoothly,” he adds. “There are hardly a few companies operating now. They, too, are dealing with food items only.”
Ishtiaq says the goods transporters bring all sorts of finished and unfinished products, medicines, food commodities and items of daily use into the city from across the country. These items are supplied to various markets and business centres in the city. That is the way they make profits. “It costs a truck or container upwards of Rs 0.2 million to carry goods from Karachi to Lahore. All the major markets and business centres in Lahore are shut. So, let alone making a profit, a goods transporter is not able to recover the actual cost of a one-way operation.”
“It costs a truck or container upwards of Rs 0.2 million to carry goods from Karachi to Lahore. On top of that, all major markets and business centres in Lahore are shut. So, let alone making a profit, a goods transporter is not able to recover the actual cost of a one-way operation.”
“Since most of the staff and labourers working at these [goods transport] companies have returned to their hometowns and villages, there is no way we can ensure a smooth run for our business.”
On one hand, the hoarders have played havoc with the uninterrupted supply of essential food items, especially flour, ghee, and sugar in the city, on the other, the profiteers continue to fleece the citizens at will. Again, the city administration’s efforts to rein in both the hoarders and profiteers appear ineffective and unproductive.
Assistant Commissioner General Malik Mushtaq Tiwana rejects the notion of shortage of food items in the city, saying, “In fact, it is the huge increase in demand that has caused the situation. The supply chain is fully operational, without interruption. Our price control magistrates have been keeping a close eye not only on retail shops but also on department stores. They immediately impose fines on those found guilty of a violation.”
He says complaints are received from citizens through the city government’s special web portal, Qeemat. Besides, wheat flour is being provided to the whole city by the district administration.
Senior Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) leader Sania Kamran says that since a majority of essential items are sourced through local supplies in the city, there is no immediate threat of a shortage.
She says that businesses dealing in food items often have their own transport. Therefore, she says, the closure of goods transport companies would not affect the food chain. “So, there’s no need to worry. It is basically because of the corporate sector and philanthropists who are buying wheat flour and other commodities in bulk for distribution and donation to the needy. That’s why a wrong perception regarding the shortage of food items has been created among the people.”
Kamran states that the government is fully aware of the problems facing the common man during the lockdown. “That’s why we have not clamped a curfew on the city. We know that it could have an adverse effect on public life.”
The relief package recently announced by the government should go a long way towards resolving the financial issues of the poor and needy, she adds.