Analysis: Why flour is now dearer than human life, dignity

Ahmad Fraz Khan Published April 6, 2023


 Mill owner claims those not registered with BISP tend to cause mischief in bid to make off with free flour bags they aren’t otherwise eligible for.—White Star
Mill owner claims those not registered with BISP tend to cause mischief in bid to make off with free flour bags they aren’t otherwise eligible for.—White Star

PUNJAB’S free flour scheme has not only been humiliating for the unfortunate; it has, perhaps for the first time, exposed the true scale of the poverty endemic in the province.

Thousands of people, especially women, have been braving kilometres-long queues for hours just to receive a 10kg bag of flour, which was available for Rs1,156 before Ramazan.

The police and the district administration have tried their hand at controlling the crowds, but the sheer number of people and their willingness to risk everything for free flour is not something the state has been able to hold off.

“Violence at the distribution points will not go away,” explains Majid Abdullah, a miller from Lahore.

“The [free flour distribution] plan will last a month, whereas poverty is permanent. Everyone wants to benefit as much as they can while the programme lasts. Those registered with the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) know they will ultimately get flour, albeit with some delay. Those who are not registered know they have to seize chances by creating mischief. They come with a plan: create mayhem and run away with bags in the confusion that follows.”

Tariq Suleman, a sociologist, makes a different point. “Thousands of people converge daily, stand in queues for hours at the cost of their dignity and social respect; face the prospect of violence, which can even cost them their lives; and still they take that chance on a daily basis. What does it tell us? It shows us that, right now, a bag of free flour overrides all other considerations for hundreds of thousands in each city of the province. This is alarming, both politically and socially. It must not go unnoticed.”

“We all knew that poverty exists and persists, but the sheer scale of misery which has surfaced with this flour distribution scheme is alarming,” says Farooq Tariq, a leader of the Pakistan Workers Party.

“Punjab says it has distributed close to three million bags so far, but the queues are getting longer by the day. Where are these people coming from? People like us have been warning about destitution, but the sheer scale is enormous and can set our entire society on fire if ignored,” he warns.

“The weaknesses in the execution show that the scheme was put together without thinking it through,” a former bureaucrat, who wishes not to be named, points out.

“Now, the governments — both the federal (the originator of the idea) and the provincial (a reluctant follower) — cannot back out even if they want to. They have no option but to press on — hoping they will be proven right in the end. The government could have simply sent money directly to the BISP-registered poor and saved itself huge political, administrative and human costs,” he suggests.

Comparing the flour distribution scheme to the Ehsaas Ration Programme, Dr Sania Nishter, who championed social safety nets under the previous PTI administration, explains: “It took months of meticulous work to design, pilot and scale up the end-to-end digital Ehsaas Rashan Riayat. The programme was designed as a ‘system’ to also be purposed for the Ramzan package every year and could have been scaled up province-wide almost instantly. However, the [PDM] government decided to shut it down and hastily put together the unsustainable free atta scheme, which is far from being well-designed.”

“Ehsaas Rashan was designed to prioritise customers’ dignity and provide choices, with them being able to visit retail stores in their neighbourhoods throughout the month. They could choose any merchant that was most convenient for them; they could purchase any quantity given their monthly subsidy limit. As a result, there are no known instances of mobs, chaos, violence, or deaths in the disbursement of the Ehsaas Rashan.”

Counting other attributes, Dr Sania says only beneficiaries who had passed through a rigorous verification pipeline, including Nadra checks, PITB wealth filter checks and PMD mobile phone and CNIC match checks, could receive the Ehsaas Rashan subsidy. “Given the haste and the lack of fraud controls built into the programme design, the atta scheme is susceptible to fraud, especially in view of an already collusive atta supply chain.”

Meanwhile, the poor, the elderly, the weak and women are being forced to take dangerous risks. Consistent media reports suggest that the jostling starts as soon as the first hopefuls show up at distribution centres early morning. The jostling soon devolves into brawls as people press their way to trucks, and bags start to be tossed willy-nilly to the sea of outstretched hands.

“I am completely at a loss as I try to understand what the PML-N government tried to achieve through the scheme,” states a former official of the Planning Division. “There has been so much bad press. The PML-N, which is now in its fourth stint in government, should have known better,” he says, shaking his head.

Published in Dawn, April 6th, 2023


Categories: Asia, Pakistan

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