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Pakistan: Deaths at charity flour centres

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In the last week, 12 people, three children and nine women, have died as they queued for flour at a Ramadan charity centre in Karachi. Hundreds of women and children had gathered outside the centre, set up by a fabric dyeing company, in the hope of getting at least a bag of flour at a time when food prices are rocketing. As crowds grew, they were baton charged by police.

There were similar scenes at the Quaid-i-Azam Stadium where 45 women were injured and one old woman was killed in a stampede after another police baton charge and beatings. The crowds there, already dehydrated and weak from fasting, had been waiting in the blazing sun for several hours after the mobile app used for identifying recipients broke down.

Deaths and injuries were reported from many other cities across the country, testimony to the food crisis facing millions.

Wheat is the staple food in Pakistan. The Prime Minister announced a Ramadan package providing free flour to the poor hit by inflation. The government of Punjab allocated 64 billion rupees to provide three 10kg bags each to 15.8 million households falling in poverty. The government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa announced the same provision for 5.8 million households registered with Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) and set aside 19.7 billion rupees.

The Government of Balochistan announced it will distribute 0.5 million 20 kg bags, as if the people of the already impoverished Balochistan need less food than those in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa! Meanwhile, the Government of Sindh has announced that it would provide Rs. 2000 to 7.8 million families registered with the BISP to buy flour.

Thirty-year-old Asma Ahmed, whose grandmother and niece were among the dead at Karachi, told AFP: “We come every year to the factory for zakat. However, they started beating the women with clubs and pushing them. There was chaos everywhere. Why did they call us if they couldn’t manage it?”

The incident took place on Friday, 31st March. Friday is the holy day in Islam and usually people would give their yearly alms in the form of zakat to the poor on this day, believing it will bring more blessings on a Ramadan Friday. Even before the pandemic and 2022 floods, it was common for the poor to knock on the doors of the affluent on Fridays in Ramadan or to flock to charitable institutions to collect alms.

Now, misery for the working poor has doubled and trebled for thousands of people laid off during the coronavirus pandemic, and then the devastating floods of 2022. The climate change-induced floods destroyed most of the harvest, but this is only one of the reasons for exorbitantly high food prices. There is also the impact of a sales tax that has been increased under the diktat of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The IMF releases loans to Pakistan on very specific conditions, most of which directly hit the poor, such as an increase in sales tax, cuts to subsidies on electricity, gas and petrol, privatisation of industry, and a market-based rate of exchange for the rupee against the dollar.
Last year, inflation in March was 12.72 per cent. This year, it stands at 35.37 per cent. This is the highest level of inflation recorded in the country in six decades. Perishable food items have seen a year-on-year inflation of 51.81 per cent, while that of non-perishable items stands at 46.44 per cent.

The Finance Ministry’s report clearly states: “Inflation is expected to stay at elevated levels owing to market frictions caused by relative demand and supply gap of essential items, exchange rate depreciation and recent upward adjustment of administered prices of petrol and diesel. Due to lagged effect of floods, the production losses especially of major agriculture crops has not yet been fully recovered. Consequently, the shortage of essential items has emerged and persisted. Inflation may further jack up as a result of second round effect.”

Furthermore, the report anticipates that wheat production is likely to be cut by a delay in rains and then heat waves in April and May. All in all, the ministry’s report makes it abundantly clear that poverty, misery and hunger are likely to prevail, indeed worsen, in the coming weeks and months.

In this situation, philanthropy and charity reveal their true faces: government and non-government actors combine minimum distribution of aid with maximum photo-ops. They gather large crowds so they can show the photographs of them to their donors, to get more money to line their own pockets.

Even if all this money were put to the benefit of the poor, it would still be inadequate. Such one-time disbursements of free flour, which anyway come with a risk of beatings and deaths, are not going to last forever. What are people below the poverty line supposed to eat once they run out of the 30 kilos of flour?

The mismanagement of the distribution centres has shown that the ruling classes are indifferent and incapable of managing the crisis. We call on workers to form food committees to control the distribution process. The inability of the ruling classes to manage the ongoing crisis reveals both real dangers and prospects for real social transformation. Rosa Luxemburg’s prediction “Socialism or Barbarism” stands truer today than ever before. The ruling classes in Pakistan are heading in a direction where they will not be able to rule the way they have ruled so far. It is high time to prepare the subjective factor to complement these objective conditions.

This is even more important because otherwise forces of reaction like the Jamaat-e-Islami will re-assert themselves. If history has shown us anything, it is that such forces are the enemies of workers, women and minorities alike. Therefore, workers, rural and urban poor, peasants and the oppressed sections of society must unite now to fight together against the current economic crisis. Our women deserve better! We do not deserve to die for a handful of flour!

We call on all left parties and organisations, as well as trade unions and women’s organisations, to join hands for a determined strategy against the economic crisis. No NGO or charity is going to solve this crisis. Only a revolutionary working class party with a real programme of action linking the struggles for free food and against inflation and the IMF with the struggle for a working-class revolution in Pakistan can do so!

Forward to a socialist revolution in Pakistan and the whole of South Asia!