Monday, September 14, 2009

A sobering reminder of government inadequacy

Eighteen people were trampled to death today in a stampede in Khori Garden, Karachi in order to get free flour from a philanthropist. According to Dawn, among the dead were a number of children.  Eyewitness reports indicate that a private security guard responsible for making sure the women formed an orderly queue baton charged the women when they became impatient with the long wait. "The women got scared and tried to save themselves... which caused the stampede," said local police official Hashmat Ali. This is the first incident of food shortage related deaths. Earlier this week, a elderly man died from heat exhaustion standing  in line for subsidized flour.

Inflation on wheat prices this year due to have resulted in widespread wheat shortages in the country. Considering that the majority of Pakistan's 160-180 million people live in poverty, this is nothing short of disastrous. The food market has been relatively unregulated in Pakistan since the military takeover in 1999. . But it was only around the time of general elections in Februrary 2008 that nagging flour shortages erupted into a full-blown crisis. Within weeks the price of wheat had doubled.The skyrocketing wheat prices, therefore, may become a matter of life and death for the extremely poor, according to a report of the Oxfam GB, a UK-based non-governmental organization.The report, “Food Crisis in Pakistan: Real or Artificial”, says the number of poor in the country has risen from 60 to 77 million because of food inflation.While the Pakistani government has implemented a food subsidy program as an effort to curb rising  flour, sugar, oil and rice prices, many claim its not enough. There have been complaints about long line ups and subsidy shortages at the subsidized food depots.

The philanthropist behind the stampede has been arrested and the local provincial government has promised a compensation of Rs0.1 million for the families of the victims.  However, these actions are merely a cosmetic fix to the real problem at large. The blame for this incident should not only fall upon the philanthropist in question but the national and provincial governments as well. There has simply not been enough substantial actions to curb food price inflation.Without legislation calling for long term market regulation of food prices, these incidents are bound to repeat.

As I am writing this, it seems that the democratically elected government has wholeheartedly embraced corporate agriculture farming (CAF) policy which will allow Arab states to lease vast tracts of land for food production and repatriate all produce and profits, even if there is a food deficit. In light of this, the deaths of 18 women and children should not be considered on a stand alone basis. Indeed, it is a symptom of governmental inadequacy and failure in serving the needs of its people.



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