Jan 18 - 24, 20

There seems to be no respite for the people from rising prices specially the kitchen items which have made the lives of poor and lower middle class, constituting about 70 percent population of the country, miserable.

The common man has been the worst sufferer during the last two years including 20 months under the PPP led government which is never tired of claiming to be the champion of public rights.

According to the latest reports the cost of living has increased beyond reasonable limits during the past 20 months ending on December 31, 2009.

Flour prices have almost doubled to over Rs 28 per kg making it almost impossible for an average poor family of five-six persons to buy even half the quantity of staple food they could buy from their meagre income 20 months ago.

Poultry meat rates ranged between Rs 170 to 190 per kg compared with an average of Rs 90/100 per kg 20 months back. Sugar prices now range between Rs 65 to 70 per kg as against Rs 30 to 35. Beef is now available at Rs 260/270 per kg which is about 40 percent higher. The prices of vegetables, milk, pulses, and rice have all gone up by 40 to 50 percent during this period. Electricity and gas rates have almost doubled even for lifeline consumers who consume 100-150 units a month. Price of kerosene oil has almost doubled to over Rs 60 per litre from Rs 20. Transport fare has touched new height. Minimum fare on intercity routs has increased to Rs 15 while 2 years back it was Rs 8 only.

Most of the lower grade employees and others in low income group are forced to walk to their work place if it is within 5 to 6 km or use a bicycle to travel a distance of 12 to 15 km. Even to own a bicycle has become a luxury which few in the low income group can afford within their meagre incomes as its prices have also gone up to Rs5000 from Rs1500 about 5 years back. Few lucky who own a motorbike cannot afford to run it on petrol of Rs 65 per litre. The so called people friendly government has done nothing for these poor classes which form the majority of the population.

On the income side there has almost no increase in their salaries. A low grade government servant is spending almost 75 percent of his monthly wages on the food requirement of the family.

According to the data released by the Federal Bureau of Statistics last week the SPI inflation surged 16.9 percent in the week ending on January 7 over the same period last year. The weekly-based sensitive price index is monitored from the prices of 53 essential kitchen items and an average is worked out.

The maximum impact of SPI spikes during last one year has been observed for the lower middle income group (Rs 3,001 and Rs 5,000), which rose by 17.52 percent. An increase of 17.35 percent points was noted in inflation for lowest income group earning up to Rs 3,000 per month, while the SPI inflation increased 17.45 percent for the income group (Rs 5001-Rs12,000). During the year the SPI inflation rose 16.89 percent for the high income group earning more than Rs 12,001 per month.

Out of the sample of 53 kitchen items prices collected from 17 urban centres, 26 items showed increase in prices, six items registered decline and the prices of 21 items remained unchanged as compared to previous week.

The main items that registered increase were gas and electricity, onions, poultry eggs, vegetable ghee, gram pulses (washed), LPG, wheat flour, rice Irri, Gur, mustard oil, mash pulse (washed), moong (washed), rice basmati broken, mutton, red chillies, wheat, firewood, chicken, beef and clothing.

The prices of six items that registered decline during the week included tomatoes, garlic, diesel, petrol, kerosene and bananas.

Even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has expressed shock and concern over no respite in food inflation especially in the kitchen items.

What is most shocking is the attitude of the present government, which appears least concerned about the growing miseries of fixed and low-income group of people comprising majority of the population. The PPP-led government is 'falling asleep at the wheel' and the consumers have been left to the mercy of multinational companies, unjust profiteers, and big cartels under political clouts.

Every body knows about this open secret of involvement of some politicians and government high-ups in cartelization and profiteering jeopardizing the economy.

At the time of budget 2009-10 the incumbent government had expressed its resolve to bring down the inflation to a single digit by the end of the year and for that purpose it sought a tight monetary policy throughout the year. However, the expectations of the government were not met due to rising prices of food which accelerated the inflation. Overall inflation declined slightly from a record high of about 26 percent in August 2008 to 22 percent in October 2009. Tariffs of electricity and gas are running up as a matter of fact.

The entire opposition in the National Assembly as well as coalition partners of the PPP staged a walkout from proceedings recently in protest over what they observed the government indifference to rising prices of food, increase in power and gas tariffs, and prolonged load shedding of electricity and gas.

The leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan, who led the walkout, accused the government of adopting a callous attitude towards the plight of the people.

Speaking on a point of order prior to walking out of the National Assembly, Chaudhry Nisar criticized the government for not formulating a policy to tackle the current situation. He said the people had to wait for hours to get sugar and flour and were enduring electricity and gas outages but the government was indifferent to their plight and its top priority seemed to get a vote of confidence for President Asif Ali Zardari.

Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, who is also chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, said that in the recent meeting of the PAC it was revealed how Wapda and SGNPL were cheating the people. "We will present the report in this regard soon in the National Assembly," he added.

When Syed Naveed Qamar in his reply termed the speech of the opposition leader as an attempt to score points, Chaudhry Nisar once again rose on a point of order and said in one year gas tariff had been increased by 140 per cent. He also questioned the government for making seven slabs of gas tariff.

He said while a fertiliser company is being provided gas at Rs 32 the domestic consumers are paying Rs 82.

Traditionally it is the opposition who stages walkouts but the National Assembly this time saw a new precedent when minister for defence production Abdul Qayyum Jatoi protested against the Punjab government.

He warned the treasury benches to listen to the alarm bells in the form of street protests and demonstrations throughout the country during the last few weeks against the incompetence of the government to handle the situation and provide them some relief. If the situation is not improved, the rising food prices, power and gas outages may trigger riots, he warned the rulers.

The situation is not one that can be ignored consistently. The issue of inflation in the price of food items is one central to most lives. The government must address it. Yet, sadly, the matter is not a priority for the ruling parties. It must be made one. Otherwise the gap that has opened up between people and their political leaders will continue to grow in leaps and bounds, causing immense damage to the socio-political equation in the country and adding to the tremendous hardships for the people.

Leaders indeed must be asked how long people will have to continue to tolerate such deprivations and they must think how long it will take before all ends up in civil unrest we all fear.