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'Ration cards' could alleviate Pakistan's flour crisis

Pakistan’s government is seeking to alleviate the country’s growing food crisis by introducing a ration-card system that will allow people to buy flour at subsidised prices.

After weeks of mounting public outrage over the shortage of wheat flour, the price of which has risen to a record high, the government has said ration cards will be made available from next month for its lower-income citizens. The crisis has been compounded by shortages of gas and electricity throughout the country, damaging businesses and interrupting supplies of heating in the middle of winter.

Wheat flour is widely used to make "roti" and "nan", varieties of round bread that are a Pakistani food staple. Lengthy queues of indignant customers have routinely formed outside government-owned retail stores throughout the country in the hope of being able to feed their families at below market rates.

At the Nan House near Islamabad’s Covered Market, a group of men, tightly wrapped in winter shawls, were recently huddled around a clay oven for warmth. As freshly baked bread was piled for awaiting customers, one by one they focused blame for what the local press has called “the flour crisis” on the government.

“This will only feed further resentment against the government,” said Abdul Ghafoor, who works at the bread store. “First we were at 90 per cent, now because of this we’re at 100 per cent. This government always boasts about its big economy, but now we have no electricity, no gas, no bread.”

Mohammed Amin, a labourer, declared him skeptical about the government’s rationing plan. “Let's see who they give the ration cards to, if they do ever give them out.”

With parliamentary elections less than a month away, the shortage of wheat flour is likely to further hurt the pro-government faction of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q).

The party's popularity has already suffered from the fallout of Benazir Bhutto's assassination and its support for the increasingly unpopular President Pervez Musharraf, who has spent the last few days in London on the final leg of a European tour.

Some members of the opposition have sought to make gains from the government's deepening woes. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted by Mr Musharraf in a military coup in 1999, has been aggressively promoting claims that prices were modest during his government.

The shortage is chiefly attributed to poor trade decisions, with a stream of reports accusing the government of having exported wheat flour at half the price it is now being forced to import the commodity at.

But there has been furious speculation that supplies are being smuggled to neighbouring Afghanistan or hoarded. Earlier this month, the government deployed 5,000 paramilitaries at flour mills to secure supplies.

Last week the Asian Development Bank warned of the effects of food inflation on other south Asian countries also. Rising cereal prices could put 300 million people in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh at risk of starvation, it said