Food inflation spikes over Ramadan

Shabana's household is quiet just before iftar, when the fast is broken after sunset. This Ramadan there is no flurry of activity at her house in Karachi, at a time the women of the house are usually preparing a big spread.

"How can there be any excitement when I cannot treat them to traditional treats like pakoras [gram flour dumplings] and samosas, fruit or even sharbat [an aromatic syrup diluted with water and served with ice]?" said Shabana.

"I used to serve them a dessert made of custard and fruits every day for iftar," said the 40-year-old mother of four. "But now we can't afford these things as everything has become expensive."

Shabana is not alone in cutting back. "I remember we women would gather after prayers and sit and discuss recipes for the following day, but not any more," one of her neighbours said.

This will also be the first year that they will have a very simple Sehri (the last meal before sunrise) too. "Each of us has one roti [unleavened bread] with chick-pea curry with tea." For years, she would cook eggs and meat.

"But with the rise in prices of cooking oil, eggs and milk, I can't consider such lavish food."

''But now we can't afford these things as everything has become expensive.''

Shabana, a domestic servant, earns Rs6,000 a month (US$84) and her husband gives her an additional Rs4,000 ($56) to run the house. "Till a year ago, I could manage very well with just Rs6,000, but the spiralling prices have broken my back and I am barely able to manage to run the kitchen till the third week of the month. By the end there is nothing left and so I borrow from the corner shop," she said.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that the number of food-insecure people has increased from 60 million in 2007 to 77 million in 2008. Pakistan is one of 16 countries that will benefit from a rollout of $214 million in response to rising food and fuel prices.

Inflation was 24 percent in the first month of fiscal year 2008-09, according to the Federal Bureau of Statistics, against 7.7 percent the previous year. However, in the lead-up to the fasting month, despite promises made by the ruling Pakistan People's Party, prices rose further, and most families across the country have had to tighten their belts further.


Photo: Zofeen T. Ebrahim/IRIN
The price of onions, the basic item to make any Pakistani curry, almost doubled

Food inflation reportedly increased to a record 32 percent, the highest in the region.

The government announced the Benazir Income Support Programme with an allocation of Rs34 billion ($479 million) from September. Under the initiative the minimum salary is expected to be raised to Rs6,000 ($84) a month and five million poor households will be given Rs1,000 ($14) per month.

The city administration also announced the establishment of 50 Bachat Bazaars or fair price stalls during Ramadan. A week on, it has only been able to open 20.

Neither Shabana nor her neighbour Perween had heard of these stalls.

"Even if they are there, when do we get time to go to these markets?" asked Perween, who starts early for work before the shops open and reaches home in the evening, just in time to cook the iftar. In her neighbourhood some women tried their luck at state-owned subsidised shops to buy food, especially flour, only to return empty-handed after waiting in the queue for two hours under the scorching sun.

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