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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In Pakistan, economic crisis mutes Ramadan celebrations


Volunteers preparing meals for people to break their fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Islamabad, Pakistan, on April 15, 2023.

By Zia Ur-Rehman and Christina Goldbaum


The crowds begin to form at dawn. They swell through the day as hundreds of men and women swathed in bright purple and pink scarves wait outside the charity’s gates in Karachi, Pakistan. Many sit for hours, desperate to collect enough flour, rice, sugar and cooking oil to break their daily fast for the holy month of Ramadan.


“Ramadan is for fasting, praying and celebrating, but in Pakistan, inflation has been forcing people to queue and die in stampedes to receive free food,” said Muhammad Aziz, a textile worker, 52, as he waited in the crowd. “It is the most expensive and unaffordable Ramadan of my life.”


Across Pakistan, the season of Ramadan — a time of daily fasting and nightly feasts with family — is in full swing. But this year, an economic crisis that has sent the price of goods soaring to record highs has muted celebrations for millions of families struggling to buy the dates, rice and meat needed to break their daily fast.


The South Asian country — home to more than 230 million — is facing one of the most daunting economic challenges of its history.


As Ramadan began last month, inflation was at a record 35.4% — the highest in nearly five decades — according to government figures. Severe floods last fall devastated much of the country’s agricultural belt, ruining wheat harvests and damaging farmland for what may be years to come. And because Ukraine exports essential grains, the war there has further strained Pakistan’s food supply, officials say.


The rising prices have stoked anger among many Pakistanis. After Prime Minister Imran Khan was ousted in a vote of no confidence last year, many hoped that the new government, led by Shehbaz Sharif, would bring an end to the inflation that had begun rising under Khan’s tenure.


Instead, the prices of necessities have continued to soar as the government has struggled to secure a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. Some critics have also blamed the government, accusing the country’s political elite of being preoccupied with the drama surrounding Khan’s political comeback and distracted from addressing the economic crisis.


“Pakistan’s ruling elite has failed in providing relief to the people, and nothing will be able to prevent the wrath of the latter from falling on the former in the weeks and months to come,” said Uzair Younus, the director of the Pakistan Initiative at the Atlantic Council. “This is a confluence of economic, political and security crises in Pakistan, and should be viewed as the most serious threat to the country’s cohesion since 1971.”


The economic desperation among Pakistanis has played out in stark scenes across the country during Ramadan. Since the holiday began nearly a month ago, at least 22 people have been killed and dozens injured in stampedes and long queues as people struggle to get some of the food being distributed across the country by charities and the government.


In one of the most devastating episodes, 11 women and children died last month in a crowd crush after hundreds had gathered outside a factory in hopes of getting a 10-kilo bag of flour and $3.50 in cash from a local philanthropist.


Even charities are struggling.


It is during Ramadan that many Pakistanis donate their religiously prescribed yearly zakat, or alms, often giving them to charitable organizations that prepare ration packets for distribution among the poor. But this year, skyrocketing prices and the crunch on donors’ incomes have left the charities with less to distribute.


Those unable to receive charity have bought what they can. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a province that borders Afghanistan, the price of flour has more than doubled since the beginning of last year.


In recent years, Pakistan had been importing wheat from Ukraine to meet the needs of the province, home to 18% of the country’s population. But with that supply disrupted by war, Russia is now the top exporter of wheat to the country.


The government has started an initiative to provide subsidized flour during Ramadan and set up distribution points for donated flour. But in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, mismanagement and overcrowding have plagued these efforts, according to local officials.


Thousands of destitute people rush daily to the distribution points, but many return empty-handed in the evening because there are not enough bags of flour to meet the soaring demand. In Peshawar and other major cities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, police regularly fire tear gas and charge the crowds with batons to disperse them. In some areas, enraged mobs have set upon trucks full of flour bags.


One recent afternoon, Ashraf Mohmand, a 34-year-old daily-wage construction laborer, stood anxiously outside a government distribution point in Peshawar. He said he had not received a single bag of flour, despite waiting in long lines for the past two days.


“I make just $3 a day — too little to even feed my three children,” Mohmand said.


Rising costs have only added to his frustration with a government he hoped would turn the economy around after it came to power last April.


“Shehbaz Sharif has proved himself worse than Imran Khan,” Mohmand said. “Everything costs double what it did last year.”


Government officials have rejected such criticism.


This month, Ahsan Iqbal, a federal minister, said the new government had been successful “not only in facing the climate disaster” that caused $30 billion in damage and economic losses last year but also in moving the country toward gradual stabilization despite the previous government’s “failed economic policies.”


Still, in recent months the government has struggled to meet the terms of a 2019 deal with the IMF worth $6.5 billion and unlock a portion of those funds that have been stalled since November.


Economists say the government is in an almost impossible position.


The cash-poor country needs IMF financing to avoid default and slipping into a recession. But to meet the terms of the deal, officials must raise taxes and slash subsidies — moves that make basics like food, gasoline and utilities even more expensive for the country’s poorest.


“The food inflation has hurt the low-income earners the most, as food baskets now comprise more than 40% of their total monthly expenditures,” said Khaqan Najeeb, a former adviser to the Finance Ministry.


The floods last fall, which killed more than 1,700 people and destroyed at least 4 million acres of crops, substantially worsened the crisis. In some of the hardest-hit regions, stagnant floodwater still covers vast areas of farmland. Even in places where the floodwater has receded, the land is expected to be less fertile for years to come.


Ghulam Muhammad, a farmer in the Dadu district of Sindh province, migrated to Karachi in November to earn a living because his land was still submerged. “Floods have snatched everything from me: my job, stocked bags of wheat to last the entire year, and two goats,” he said.


Now, Muhammad, 38, is working as a private security guard for $86 a month, with no holiday.


To stretch his salary, he joins those lining up for free meals outside kiosks set up by charity organizations in the city. Those meals, he said, have kept his family from going to sleep hungry. Still, each day, as more and more people arrive at the charity begging for food, he grows more worried for his family’s future, he says.


“It’s a tradition during Ramadan for food stalls to offer free sunset and pre-dawn meals everywhere in the city,” Muhammad said. “But once the holy month ends, where will we find free food?”

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