Pakistan keeps slipping further into a dystopian nightmare: this time people dying literally over bags of flour. There was already shock over the flour stampede in Charsadda, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa a week back, along with other reports of similar disarray and stampedes leading to death at government-led flour distribution points, when reports surfaced of at least nine women and three children dying in a stampede in Karachi’s industrial hub – SITE area on Friday (March 31). A factory owner in the area had organized the ration distribution drive – an annual practice observed in the month of Ramazan. Charity drives have always been a visible feature of Ramazan in Pakistan. Factory owners, business persons, philanthropists, etc usually invite people to collect alms. But this year things are different. Pakistan’s economy has been hit by multiple external triggers. Not only is it suffering the dents created by the Ukraine war, it is also finding it difficult to make up for the economic losses caused by the 2022 floods. This has now created a humanitarian crisis in an agrarian economy where people cannot afford food items. On top of it, the country’s rising inflation (35 per cent in March) has had negative effects on the purchasing power of the professional class whose charities used to take burden off the backs of the government and other philanthropists. All these triggers have pushed millions of people below the poverty line. Decades-old soup kitchens in Pakistan now say that they are unable to meet the high demand as their supplies finish before the long queues of the needy end.
While some might remember the 2009 case of 20 women and children being crushed to death in a stampede during a flour distribution drive, it is disturbing that at an even worse time in our economy, little [in fact, nothing] has been done by the government to streamline such distribution efforts. The reluctance by the government to devise a dignified mechanism to distribute cash among people so that they can make their ends meet is a mystery, especially when economists and other experts have asked the government to expand the beneficiaries of the BISP/Ehsaas programme and give cash distributions through an already established mechanism. At the moment, all we see is people being made to leave all their dignity aside for a bag of flour. After the SITE area incident, police authorities and the Sindh government have asked people planning to conduct charity drives to inform the district administration so that such drives are organized in a disciplined manner. That would have been comforting if we didn’t already have enough evidence that government-backed distribution drives are hardly any better.
The poor and working class in Pakistan are seen mostly as sub-human – not worthy of respect or dignity. Nothing makes this clearer than the way the government treats their right to a life of dignity. This apathy has also trickled down into the rest of society, where charity drives – a worthy cause indeed – are unplanned ‘favours’ by the rich to the poor. There is also the inevitable victim-blaming that starts nearly every time those in privilege are shaken out of their denial: these days, the ire is usually directed at the influx of ‘internally displaced people’ in urban areas. Apart from xenophobia, this is also a complete ignorance of what economic desperation looks like. Layoffs across the country have made the matters even worse. What the poor and the working class need is empathy and acknowledgement of the difficult time they have to endure. But more than that, they need a state and government that is not as disturbingly comfortable with food stampedes as the current one seems to be. The government and other stakeholders need to stop everything and first sit together to draft a mechanism to ensure that the deserving and the needy get financial aid – with the dignity that every human must be accorded.