TOPICS:Experts warn of unrest over food prices

For Mohammed Bashir, a restaurant chef, it was galling to have to be standing in line at a langar (soup kitchen) waiting to be served a free meal. Bashir lost his job four months ago when he injured a finger in a traffic accident. “Can you imagine how humiliating it is for a person who has never begged, or asked anyone for alms, to go to a langar?” asks a visibly

distressed Bashir. He has been reduced to living on the streets and sleeping under bridges while waiting to find another job.

Hailing from Quetta in the western Balochistan, Pakistan, he refuses to go back home. “My wife and children are already living with her brother, I can’t go home empty-handed.” What upsets Bashir most is that there was no one he could turn to for a badly needed finger-grafting operation. Doctors at the government-run hospitals asked him to visit them privately and pay up for the surgery.

But Bashir is grateful to the charitable Edhi Foundation which feeds some 15,000-odd destitute people daily at the langars it has been running in this port city. With 325 centres across the country, Edhi is considered to be South Asia’s largest private social service network. “We have so far been able to set up only 70 such langars in the last two months, serving around 300,000 people,” Abdul Sattar Edhi, foundation head and Pakistan’s best-known philanthropist said. “No one is turned away,” says Mohammad Bilal, who manages an Edhi soup kitchen in the city centre which serves around 500 people daily. “The idea is to feed the indigent but as such there is no screening.”

Following suit, the Karachi Stock Exchange also initiated its ‘dastarkhwan’ programme for the poor, serving 3,000 free meals per day. The UNWFP, which estimates that the number of food-insecure people has increased from 60 million to 77 million in 2007-08, has announced inclusion of Pakistan in the 16 countries which will benefit from a rollout of a $214 million in response to rising food and fuel prices. Edhi, currently on a bheek (begging) mission across the country, has been able to collect Rs 300,000,000 ($4,229,820). But he needs Rs 1,000,000,000 ($14,099,400) to be able to open more langars. “I don’t want people committing suicide or killing their children due to hunger. The idea is to rekindle the spirit of giving among our people.” Edhi warns of a “bloody revolution” that is simmering. “The signs are already there. Increased number of suicides due to poverty, unemployment and despair; lawlessness, people killing their own children as they cannot feed them... I’m not exaggerating.”

“No, he’s not exaggerating,” agrees Najma Sadeque, a political analyst and a human rights activist. “History has seen that happen over and over again in different parts of the world, and for the same reasons. Hunger is a very real and agonising form of violence. Sooner or later, people will react. I hope it won’t come to that, but the callousness, greed and cold-bloodedness of so many of our decision makers confounds the imagination.” — IPS