A man collects his ration at one of the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) collection points. However, the project has resulted in deaths and injuries as people flock to the collection sites. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS
  • by Ashfaq Yusufzai (Peshawar)
  • Interpress service

“We have been waiting in long queues to get a bag of flour since morning but to no avail as the police took up the baton to charge the would-be beneficiaries. At least 20 people, including seven women, sustained injuries due to the police charging the crowd, says Abdul Wali, 35, a daily wager, to IPS.

A resident of Mardan district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Wali said he had no money to buy flour and other items of daily use and had pinned his hope on the free flour scheme. But because of the rush of people, he didn’t get it. Instead, the injured man was taken to hospital.

Wali, a street vendor, said he received first aid at the hospital, where his wounds were bandaged, but he has been forced to rest until he recovers.

On March 8, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif announced that the government would provide 100 million people with 10 kg of free flour during Ramzan in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) provinces. He said it would cost the national exchequer Rs 73 billion (about US$257 million).

Since the flour distribution began at the designated points, ten people, including two women, have died in their attempts to get free bags under the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP).

Pakistanis, hit by price hikes, rush to the points every day, but half of them return empty-handed in the evening due to the number of people trying to collect their food parcels. The Stampedes have a problem, especially in KP, where the poverty rate is higher than in any other province.

“My father was standing in line to collect the flour, but meanwhile the storm started, and he died instantly,” Ghufran Khan, a daily wager in Charsadda district, told IPS. His father, Wakil Khan, 55, an asthmatic, died before he could get his flour ration.

Mismanagement at the distribution points keeps the elderly and sick away from places where the young and healthy people get the flour, he said.

On March 26, a tribal Jirga banned women from visiting the distribution points in Bara Khyber district of KP.

“Our women face harsh treatment, and hence we have decided that only male members of the deserving families would collect the bags,” said Shahid Khan Shinwari, a member of the Jirga.

According to him, the government should provide cash amount through banks to avoid maltreatment of the beneficiaries.

“According to local traditions, our women do not go out in public, but poverty has hit the people hard and even forced them to resort to begging. The government should take pity on poor people who have no choice but to wait in the scorching sun to get flour,” Shinwari said.

The situation in the tribal districts along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is very precarious due to poverty, he said.

Nasreen Bibi, a resident of Peshawar, the capital of KP, is angry about the distribution mechanism.

“For the past three days, I have visited the point, but there was no chance to get the stuff because of the huge crowd. I am scared and have stopped going there now,” Bibi, a housewife, told IPS. She is a widow and has to feed her six children, all of whom are unemployed and her eldest son, a mason, lost his job because construction has come to a complete halt due to Ramzan, she said.

Young people climb over trucks loaded with flour and take away bags while the women are forced to be silent spectators, she explained.

Sharif visited several cities following reports of deaths and injuries, but there has been no improvement as the mechanism is problematic. On March 27, he inspected several places in Islamabad, but there has been no improvement so far.

Human rights activists are concerned.

– It is a gross violation of human rights. People fight for flour without caring about their well-being and health. I recommend that the government adopts former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s mechanism during Covid-19, where people were given Rs 12,000 through banks,” said Muhammad Uzair, a human rights activist.

On rainy days, the situation worsens when the people get wet flour that cannot be used, he said.

“We appeal to the government to recognize the gravity of the situation and return to cash assistance to save women, children and elderly people from disrespect,” he said.

He said if the government did not pay attention, the crisis may increase and many people may lose their lives.

Even in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, people throng the distribution points early in the morning, but many lose hope and return to their homes.

“The government has registered 150,000 families in Islamabad, but the pace of distribution is at a snail’s pace and the police have had to intervene time and again to ensure order,” Shah Afzal, 59, said.

Afzal, a dishwasher at a restaurant, lost his job during Ramzan. He said the flour distribution gave hope to the poor community, but the system is flawed and elderly people cannot continue to risk their lives.

IPS UN agency report

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© Inter Press Service (2023) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service