“A few days ago I had to wait for a whole four hours to get a single sack of ‘atta’ [wheat flour]… That is not easy when you have five kids at home, the food to cook, the water to boil and so many other chores,” said Mumtaz Bibi, 40, as she stood in a queue outside a store in Lahore.
Mumtaz and her family are among millions of people affected by a shortage of wheat flour which first became evident in late 2007.
The fact that demand exceeded supply meant prices of the essential commodity soared - a very serious matter in a country where over 70 percent of the population lives on US$2 or less.
The smuggling of wheat to Afghanistan has worsened the crisis, according to local media reports.
While President Musharaf has blamed the wheat crisis on riots in the wake of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on 27 December, others said this was just an excuse, as cities like Lahore held huge stocks of wheat.
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Bread prices rising
Some families, like that of Azeem Bhatti, a shoemaker who lives in Shahdra on the outskirts of Lahore, have been unable to afford even a ‘roti’ (flattened bread) to feed their children.
“Prices for one ‘roti’ jumped from Rs 3 [about 4.83 US cents] to Rs 5 or 6 [8-10 cents], and sometimes we have been sharing out a single piece between four children,” said Azeem, who earns just under $60 a month.
The wheat flour supply situation has improved slightly over the past week, but discontent remains high.
Skirmishes over flour
Two weeks ago paramilitary personnel were deployed outside flourmills and warehouses to prevent raids on them.
Skirmishes over sacks of flour have been witnessed in Peshawar, capital of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, with supplies reaching the area, as well as the southwestern province of Balochistan, still highly erratic.
Pakistan is also gripped by one of the most severe energy crises in its history, with power cuts for up to 15 hours a day for domestic consumers, and also periodic cuts in piped natural gas, which serves as the primary fuel in many homes.
Photo: Zofeen Ebrahim/IRIN
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Islamabad is affected, but the most prolonged cuts are reported in small towns and villages.
Amina Sadaf, 25, a housewife in Gujranwala, about 150km north of Lahore, said: “We have less food than normal to cook because the prices of flour are so high. But even when we have obtained some, we cannot light our stoves since there is no gas, while the lack of electric power means it is hard to pump water.”
Meanwhile, sub-zero temperatures in some areas are adding to the hardship.
“My children are hungry, cold and miserable. And then I see advertising on TV saying the government has done a great deal for us,” chides Azeem Bhatti. “How can I believe what they say?” he asked.
The humanitarian fall-out from this crisis goes far beyond the homes of individual Pakistanis, with hospitals reportedly having to cancel appointments, procedures and even emergency surgery.
“My father was scheduled for open heart surgery a week ago. He is still waiting because the power crisis affects the working of operation theatres and a backlog of cases has built up,” said Samiullah Khan at a private hospital in Lahore.
Meanwhile, many fear that elections scheduled for 18 February could lead to violence, exacerbating the situation further.