Every year before a new budget is presented; we hear unlimited promises and assurances of price control. It then takes just a few days for these pledges to fizzle out and the truth is revealed to the people, as a new wave of inflation engulfs the society. This year everybody was hoping that the budget would be citizen-friendly but this is not the case. For decades, the new budget has always marked an increase in the prices of necessities. Whether it is a civilian government or a martial law set-up, prices of essential commodities continue to soar in all circumstances.
This year's budget has once again failed to fulfil the promises that government had made four years ago - to provide relief to the general public by reducing the price hike and lowering the rate of income tax.
According to Siraj Kassim Teli, Chairman Business Group, "The government has ignored the demands of the business community for reducing GST ratio to a single digit. There was no relief in the price hike and no spread in the tax net which will overburden those who are already paying taxes honestly and regularly."
Meanwhile, General Secretary of the Karachi Retail Grocers Group, Farid Qureishi, is of the view that the budget has lost its significance in terms of price fluctuation.
"People are already paying high prices," says Qureishi. "The prices of commodities had shown a record increase in the last four years and now the buyers do not have extra money to make any surplus pre-budget purchases."
Similarly, the President of Pakistan Economy Watch (PEW), Dr Murtaza Mughal says, "The budget has offered nothing to women entrepreneurs. No step has been taken to improve the quality of life of women involved in micro or macro businesses."
However, not everyone is displeased with the yearly announcement.
Chairperson of the Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry (WCCI), Begum Salma Ahmed has welcomed the various announcements in the budget especially the visible cut in duties on the import of raw materials of pharmaceutical industry.
"It would make medicines affordable for the common man," says Salma Ahmed.
She is also pleased with the allocation of Rs126 million for the 13 schemes of Human Rights Division Projects in the Public Sector Development Programme (PSDP) for the fiscal year 2012-13. "According to the budgetary documents, out of the total allocation Rs 30 million has been allocated for the construction of Working Women Hostels in Sector G-6/2 and G-7/3 of Islamabad and Rs 8 million each for the establishment of Women Centre, Lahore and Women Centre, Dera Ghazi Khan."
Despite its shortcomings, many are pleased with the announcement of the raise in salaries and pensions. The 20 per cent ad-hoc relief in pay and pension is expected to serve the employees with proper financial help.
Also, the increase in the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) budget, which has been increased from Rs 50 billion to Rs 70 billion too has been welcomed. According to the budget document, this year the BISP aims to identify new recipient families, bringing the total to 7 million recipients and payments to all beneficiaries through Benazir Debit Cards in more than 100 districts. Meanwhile, Waseela-e-Taleem will be launched in 20 districts while focusing on the provision of life insurance cover to the bread-winners of additional one million recipient families.
What women say...
Even though those concessions have been made, the people of the country are still concerned with the price hike in the daily utilities. The situation has affected everyone but it is the woman of the house, who bears the brunt of this spike in prices as she has to manage within a limited home budget.
"Women, like me, had high expectations from the new budget because it is an election year and we were expecting and waiting for some kind of relief package from the government. However, it seems they are only playing with the sentiments of the people. The prices of everything from wheat to petrol have already risen considerably making it difficult for a middle class family to survive," shares Nimra, a housewife.
For example, Mutton is being sold at Rs550-600 per kg depending on the area as compared to Rs480-520 per kg few months back. Similarly, beef is priced at Rs300-320 per kg while boneless meat costs Rs370-400 per kg as compared to Rs270-280 and Rs330-340 per kg, respectively.
Meanwhile, despite a good wheat crop, the price of fine atta, atta 2.5 and chakki flour has surged to Rs34, Rs33 and Rs36 from Rs32, Rs28 and Rs35 per kg.
According to Areeba, a working woman, the price hike has become a routine affair. "As such we should not focus on the budget. Prices are rising on a daily basis as we have experienced throughout the year," she says. "As for the budget, it has depicted the inflation in double digits and the lower middle class has to pay for the government's failure to control inflation."
Like meat and wheat, tea prices have also surged. A famous tea company has increased the price of tea by Rs30 per kg while another renowned company has increased its prices by Rs35 per kg. They link the rise in prices to the devaluation of the rupee, shortage in production and the smuggling of Pakistan's favourite hot beverage.
"Women are the ones who suffer the most," laments Asma, a working wife. "Being a homemaker means that one has to execute the most difficult task of the house; managing the budget. The only thing we can do is to cut down our expenses and work extra hours in order to run our homes. We can't see relief anywhere in the near future."
Moreover, the prices of ghee and cooking oil have increased by Rs5 per kg with the Pakistan Vanaspati Manufacturers Association (PVMA) blaming rising palm oil prices, high transportation cost and the falling rupee as the major reasons for that increase.
And according to Maira, a sole bread-earner of a family of four, the persistent price hikes has made it near to impossible for people to make the ends meet.
"Women are more concerned with inflation rather than the democracy. Everyone in the government is busy harping their own tune, while the public is under so much pressure to meet their daily expenses that they don't even have time to raise their voices."
Amongst other items, another brand raised the prices of its products substantially. Their tea whitener now sells for Rs 80 more per kg while price of powdered milk has been increased by Rs 55 per kg.
The prices of spices too have increased. Red chillies took the lead to reach Rs680 per kg from Rs265 per kg in May 2011. Cloves swelled to Rs1,600 per kg from Rs990 per kg while Black peppers rate rose to Rs860 per kg from Rs670 and the rates of White cumin seed went up to Rs410 per kg from Rs320.
The rates of pulses and sugar, however, have come down. But still they do little to help the common-folk as their budgets are expanding exponentially.
And Rahema, a working woman, believes that people belonging to the middle and the lower middle classes are the main targets of the price hike. "The irony is that our salaries have been nearly the same for the last many years, whereas the prices of everyday items have increased ten folds. Our social norms also demand extra expenditure from us (the middle class) and even if we don't spend lavishly, we have to expend an amount which causes mental agony at the end of the month," she tells.
"I don't understand why there is a shortage of food items and consequently the rise in their prices with our country being an agricultural one. I think it's just a matter of hoarding, mismanagement and the governments' inability to put a check and balance on prices."
The budget document says that essential items will be provided at cheaper rates through utility stores. Even though, the prices are comparatively low at utility stores, the required items are in limited stock, and sometimes are unavailable too. Another major problem is that the utility stores are few and one has to wait for hours under the scorching sun for his/her turn.
We can only hope that the future government presents a citizen-friendly budget in the coming years and provide some relief to the poor.