Flour distribution practice needs to adopt modern methods | By Zeenia Satti


Flour distribution practice needs to adopt modern methods

DISTRIBUTION management is a science. Are relevant government functionaries not educated in this science? Why is distribution of free aata frequently turning into a riot, a stampede, a brawl or a violent event which leaves some of the needy maimed for life, or injured for a long period, or dead?

The other day, TV news showed us that while collecting a sack of flour for her family, a woman was shoved around so violently by others who had gathered for collection of free flour that her arm broke. She was not even interviewed by any TV channel, simply shown as a statistic of one injured. She may be a worker whose salary is entirely reliant on her arm being functional at all times. She came for a sack of flour to relieve herself of the unbearable expense of having to buy one and left with a whole limb of her body she needs to earn a livelihood for life permanently crippled or weakened beyond repair. Affording critical medical care for a long time is obviously not an option for the poor. The government too cannot guarantee it.

The occasion to collect free groceries should not become an occasion for poor citizens to turn on each other or irreparably harm each other. A caring act of the government should not be allowed to degenerate into an indictment of systemic hunger forcing humans to behave like desperate animals. Deprivation is a bond. The deprived should be allies helping each other instead of shoving and pushing each other in a bid to be first past the goal post, convinced they will be returned empty handed if they don’t make it.

Instead of collecting the needy at a distribution point, government should issue plastic cards with a certain monetary ceiling operative throughout the month and either mandate all local grocery stores to accept these in the same way they accept credit cards, for payments of sacks of flours, edible oil and whatever else to the government intends to provide free of cost or at subsidized rate, from customers or suffer fine and closure of their business. Most grocery stores have CCTV surveillance installed at the premises to deter looters and provide security to shoppers and shop keepers alike. In addition to CCTV cameras, most poor people have cellular telephones they can use as evidence of wrongful rejection if the shop refused to accept the plastic card as mode of payment from the poor.

The government must make prompt payment to the stores to make the program credible and keep it running. The needy will be able to procure the flour they want, when they want, in a safe and hassle-free environment. The bureaucracy will not be able to embezzle funds earmarked for the purpose, at least not easily, and the nation’s poor will not be turned, with regular intervals, into a tragic spectacle of want. The current exercise of distribution of free atta, instead of making people grateful to their rulers and cheering them in their adversity, alienates them from their government because it regularly humiliates them and endangers them while giving them something they want so much.

Plastic card manufacturing and distribution is much, much less costly than financing the logistics of delivery of each sack of flour to each needy citizen. The cost of transportation, the maintenance of vehicles, the employment of manpower at each juncture of the chain of operation, not to mention the carbon emissions from diesel or petrol-driven trucks, are unnecessary burdens on treasury and environment both. For the deserving, the time spent waiting in an inhospitable climatic environment threatening to get more and more hostile all the time due to climate change, plus Ramazan and the cost of medical care to each needy citizen who is exposed to the hazard of sustaining bodily injury each time he or she tries to avail the opportunity of free distribution of flour should also be factored in.

The socio-political cost of promoting a belligerent polity with repeated provocation that renders citizenry mutually acrimonious is also to be re-examined. Government’s job is to promote harmony and maintain peace among citizens. Is the current distribution policy achieving this goal? The answer is no. It must be transformed. Mass food insecurity is already a potent driver of unrest and violence. The current system of food distribution is reminiscent of the archaic system administered in the ancient Roman lepers’ colonies. Civilization has since acquired far more sophisticated practices of giving to the needy. Pakistan too needs to change ways.

I plead with our decision makers and policy executors to study how systems aimed at preventing hunger are conceived and administered in modern states and follow the best operational strategies available to us. The internet age has made learning a lot easier but the internet cannot implant curiosity to learn in the minds of policy makers and executors. The culture of governance must require curiosity to learn and adoption of innovation to be exhibited at all times by government functionaries, instead of sticking to traditional and unsustainable practices that defy the goal a policy is made to fulfil.

—The writer is CEO at Pakistan’s People-Led Disaster Management. PPLDM is focused on disaster risk reduction and rural poverty alleviation.

Email: [email protected].