ISLAMABAD - After suffering for years from a stagnant economy and inflation on basic items like food, even middle-class Pakistanis are feeling the economic pinch. As the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins in Pakistan, many people are taking advantage of free iftar dinners sponsored by charities and wealthy individuals.
In a low-income neighborhood of the Pakistani capital, free iftar dinners are arranged for needy people throughout the month of Ramadan.
Organizers say rising inflation has led more and more people each year to break their fast at the free meals.
Mohammad Amir, who works at a tailor shop, says he saves good money by eating for free because his income is not enough to buy food for his entire family. He says he comes to the dinner for breaking the fast, though it is personally quite embarrassing to sit in an open area and wait for the charity food.
Amir says that although philanthropists are feeding people this way, political leaders are doing little to address rising food prices and unemployment. He says the politicians are fighting with each other and they are unaware whether the public is starving to death or how are they managing their lives.
Asad Ullah works as a security guard and visits the free food camp every Ramadan. He hopes the money he saves will help him buy new clothes for his children. Ullah says his salary is just around 10,000 rupees ($100) a month and that eating one meal for free saves him 25 percent of his income which helps his family at the end of month meet some urgent needs.
Organizer Abdul Razak Bhatti says local traders and wealthy people are quietly funding the charity work. He says that he began offering free food during Ramadan five years ago out of his religious devotion. But he says he has now made it a daily practice throughout the year.
“Usually there is one bread earner who has to feed a family of say 10 people," Bhatti said. "So, obviously their basic needs are not met and then there are rising electricity bills, natural gas bills and other such matters that it becomes extremely difficult for the family to live on the fewer resources.”
Tahira Abdullah, an Islamabad-based human rights activist, welcomes the growing tradition of free meals in Ramadan but has her own reservations about it.
“I feel that it is absolutely shameful that in the so-called Islamic Republic of Pakistan we have this kind of need and such kinds of poverty, rising levels of poverty that we need now lower middle and the poor to go to the philanthropy and charity," she said. "Do you think that those who line up along streets and avenues for free food in the evening every Ramadan have any shred of self-respect and dignity left? Nothing.”
Like previous years, the government is offering a Ramadan relief package that subsidizes the cost of flour, sugar, lentils, milk and other foods. But critics say the savings rarely trickle down to the needy because of rampant corruption.