x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Khan's bakeries fight Pakistan food crisis

Desperate crowds clamour for cheap fresh roti as soaring flour costs prompt ex-cricketer's Movement for Justice party to take direct action.

A baker makes roti at a <i>sasta tandoor</i> run by Imran Khan's Tehreek-e-Insaf party. Bread is sold at half the market rate.
A baker makes roti at a sasta tandoor run by Imran Khan's Tehreek-e-Insaf party. Bread is sold at half the market rate.

LAHORE // Imran Khan, Pakistan's revered cricket hero who has transformed himself into the country's angriest politician, forfeited a place in parliament when he boycotted February elections. Now he is doing what the crisis-burdened government is failing to: feeding the poor. In depressed urban neighbourhoods of the Punjab, Pakistan's most populated province, Mr Khan's party, Tehreek-e-Insaf, has begun operating sasta tandoors (cheap tandoor bakeries), selling fresh roti and nan from traditional tandoor ovens for less than half the market rates.

Soaring inflation and a national wheat shortage - due to over-export, smuggling and hoarding - have made flour an expensive and hard-to-come-by commodity. For the past year, low-income earners and the unemployed have had to elbow and shove each other to get hold of their diet staple at discount sale points. Food inflation is at 35 per cent year-on-year. Fuel and electricity prices have skyrocketed. For the two-thirds of Pakistan's 165 million people earning less than US$2 (Dh7.2) a day, survival is a struggle.

"People are going hungry. The majority can't afford flour. People are finding it difficult to feed their children," Mr Khan said. A kilo of flour now costs 24 rupees (Dh1.8), up from 18 rupees a year ago. "The situation is worse in the cities. In the rural areas, people store grain for long periods, or they grow what they can on small pieces of land. But in the cities people are desperate." In August, shortly before Ramadan began, Mr Khan's party opened its first sasta tandoor in a poor area of Lahore, the bustling eastern city of about 10 million people. Crowds clamoured for bread.

"It was a huge success. But so many people were coming that we couldn't cope," he said. "So we opened five more in Lahore and another 13 in nearby cities. Eventually, we plan to open in all major cities and areas with large concentrations of people who are struggling." Rawalpindi, next to Islamabad, and the commercial hub of Karachi are next to get sasta tandoors. The idea came from members of Tehreek-e-Insaf, or Movement for Justice, the party Mr Khan founded in 1997. He left behind two decades of international cricket and threw himself into charity work, setting up a major cancer hospital that provides free treatment to 70 per cent of its patients. Politics followed.

Unlike most parties in Pakistan, Tehreek-e-Insaf has a detailed manifesto, central to which is the introduction of state welfare. But the party will have to wait a few years before having a voice in national policy-making: it boycotted the last elections on the grounds that they were illegal under Pervez Musharraf's unelected presidency. The February polls were to be the third elections contested by the party, and for the first time it was confident of gaining more than the one seat it has only ever held, when Mr Khan won in his native constituency in 2002.

"I thought if we were in power, what I'd be doing is trying to make Pakistan a welfare state," he said. "We wouldn't have the means to do so immediately, so we would start with something like this." Mr Khan added he was taking a targeted approach to subsidising the national staple. "There is no way you can subsidise everything for everyone. We are targeting the most deprived." Tehreek-e-Insaf workers purchase the flour in bulk at market rates for the bakeries, which then sell the bread at heavily subsidised prices. The sasta tandoors bake 3,000 to 5,000 rotis and nans per day, selling rotis for one rupee each and nan for three rupees. On the normal market, one roti costs four rupees and nan between seven and 10 rupees each.

"In our society there are five to six people per household," Omar Cheema, the party's information secretary, said. "Only one is running around and earning; the rest just sit and eat. This way every mouth in the household can get a roti each at mealtimes." In Ghousia Colony, a downtrodden neighbourhood of chaotic dirt lanes and muddy canals on Lahore's outskirts, 400 people a day queue each morning and evening to buy warm bread from the busy sasta tandoor.

"Every household here is saving 70 to 80 rupees per day," said Ahmad Nasir, who co-ordinates the tandoor programme. "It's cheaper to buy bread here than to make it at home." At dusk, one drizzly evening before iftar, hundreds of children and elderly people lined up at the Ghousia Colony. Clutching a 10-rupee note, Amina, 11, boasted that she could now buy 10 rotis to bring home to her five siblings and parents.

"Before I could only get five or six each day for my family. Now we can each have a full roti with our meals, instead of splitting them up." bcurran@thenational.ae