Three killed in Pakistan protesting rise in the prices of essential commodities

Since the government signed a deal with the IMF, mass protests have occurred regularly against the massive reduction in state subsidies on essential commodities which has in turn driven up the prices of electricity and food items

May 17, 2024 by Peoples Dispatch
Protesters in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan. Photo: Screenshot

People in Pakistan-administered Jammu Kashmir province observed a complete shutdown on Tuesday, May 14 calling it a “day of mourning” in protest of the killing of three young protesters by security forces on Monday evening.

At least three people were killed and six others during a police crackdown on a protest. Security forces opened fire at people who were protesting rising prices of all basic commodities including the electricity and food, in Muzaffarabad, capital of Azad Jammu Kashmir (AJK) as it is called in Pakistan.

People in the region began their protests this past weekend as part of a call from the Jammu Kashmir Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC) to march to Muzaffarabad to demand the implementation of an agreement signed with the government in February to address the growing cost of living crisis.

The JAAC had been raising the demand for subsidized wheat flour, a reduction in the cost of electricity, and an end of all privileges to the elite class in Pakistan such as government subsidies. As per the February agreement, the government had agreed to implement most of these demands except the reduction in the price of electricity. However, JAAC had claimed that even those demands accepted by the government were not implemented.

Ever since the call for the march was given, the government in Pakistan had tried to scuttle the movement by using force. At least 70 leaders were arrested on May 9 and May 10 in anticipation of the march. Nevertheless, a strike was observed on Friday May 10. On Saturday, the second day of the strike, at least 90 protesters were injured when security forces used force to repress them. At least one police officer was also killed when protestors retaliated.

A talk was held between the representatives of the JAAC and the government of the AJK on Sunday. However, it failed to resolve the issues which led to the renewed call for the march to Muzaffarabad on Monday.

Amidst the protests, the Shehbaz Sharif led government in Pakistan sanctioned a 23 billion rupee (USD 82 million) deal for the province to provide power and wheat subsidies on Monday after a meeting involving AJK prime minister Chaudhary Anwarul Haq and others.

The protesters were killed by the Pakistan Rangers despite the announcement of the agreement in Islamabad. The Dawn reported that rangers fired at the protests after some of them, angry due to the movement of the forces, torched two of their vehicles.

Manzoor Pashteen, the founder of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) criticized the attack on the people protesting for their basic rights.

Several political leaders and commentators have also pointed out that the growing protests in Pakistan is a sign of people’s growing frustration with their elected representatives who have failed to address the basic economic issues and have no vision to deal with them in the long run as well.

As per the package announced on Sunday by the Shariff government, people in AJK will now be able to get the sack of wheat flour at Rs 2,000 (USD 7). They will pay substantially reduced electricity rates as well.

Taimur Rahman, secretary of Pakistan’s Mazdoor Kissan Party claimed that JAAC’s demands were quite simple and relevant and the government should have dealt with them with care in the first place instead of using force against people. He claimed that JAAC’s demands are the demand of most of the Pakistanis who are victims of the corrupt link between the corporates and the government.

Calling the protests a fight for people’s rights Ammar Ali Jan member of the leftwing Haqooq-e-Khalq Party called on X for the end of elite subsidies and inequality in the country.

The people are facing the brunt of IMF deal

Prices of electricity and food items in the country have seen a massive rise due to disruptions in the global supply chain as well as the policy implications of the USD 3 billion loan program which the Pakistan government signed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) last year. In May 2023, inflation in Pakistan hit 38%. This spike along with the devastating floods and the lack of concrete government policy to address the people’s economic grievances, have intensified the discontent.

As such, protests against the government’s failure to curb the rise in the prices of essential commodities and its general callousness towards those suffering in the economic crisis have been organized by different sectors for more than a year now.

Farmers in Punjab and other provinces organized protests last week against the government’s policies of importing wheat at a time when domestic production of wheat was sufficient, accusing the government of corruption. The farmers demanded greater purchases of the wheat at the minimum support price by the government.

Protests against the government’s inaction to combat inflation and the cost of living crisis are likely to continue across the country, especially as the government continues to implement IMF diktats amid another disbursement of funds.