On Monday, at least 19 women were killed in a stampede in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Karachi. According to the NY Times, “The stampede occurred as a local trader was distributing food [flour, lentils and other goods] in Khori Garden, a sprawling neighborhood in the southern part of the city. Hundreds of women and children had gathered in the narrow lanes, and witnesses said the women tumbled over one another trying to enter a building in an attempt to collect the food first.” 25 people were reportedly injured in the incident.
BBC News‘ Arman Sabir noted that the key cause of the tragedy was “the unexpected arrival of large numbers of people.” The crowding and congestion at the distribution site later exacerbated the situation, making it difficult for ambulances and rescue workers to get through. Waseem Ahmed, Karachi’s police chief, told reporters, “The incident happened because the distribution was taking place in a very confined area without any precautions,” adding that the man distributing the free flour, identified as Chaudhry Iftikhar, was detained “because he had not given police prior notice.”
According to Bloomberg, President Asif Ali Zardari has called for an inquiry into the stampede, ordering the Sindh government “to appoint a High Court judge to lead the probe and report within a week on who is responsible for the tragedy.” Zardari “took serious note of the poor arrangements to manage huge crowds,” adding that local authorities should have ensured the distribution was “smooth and safe.” Dawn reported that Sindh’s Chief Minister has promised a compensation of one lakh rupees (100,000 rs.) for the families of the victims.
Media outlets provided several eyewitness accounts of the stampede Monday, humanizing the tragedy further. Fatima Hashim, a 55 year old woman whose daughter was seriously injured Monday, told Al Jazeera, “The place where wheat flour was being distributed was very narrow, which suffocated hundreds of women and children…I went along with two of my daughters to get two bags of flour, but now my younger daughter is struggling for life in the hospital.”
Amina, a maid at a government school in Lyari told Dawn News,
I would have never come here to get flour if the inflation rate was not as high. The price hike this year has made it difficult for us to feed our large families and the government does not seem to care. Every day I stand in long queues to purchase atta (flour) at Rs. 10 per kg, but return home empty-handed. Today, when I heard that free flour was being distributed by someone, I immediately rushed to try my luck here as well…As soon as I reached out to get a bag of flour, two women jumped on my back and I fell down. The crowd stepped on me and I couldn’t breathe for a while and then fell unconscious. My neighbor brought me to the hospital.
In the wake of this heart-breaking incident, it seems we are all trying to find a scapegoat. Authorities blamed the man distributing the food for not taking the necessary precautions in a confined area. Zardari, in his statement Monday, pointed the finger at the local authorities, asserting they should have ensured that food distribution was safe and secure. According to The News, one eyewitness even shifted responsibility to the crowd, blaming the “intolerant, ill-mannered and impatient women.”
At the end of the day, the problem is much larger than the man who didn’t clear the area with the authorities, or the authorities who didn’t ensure the crowd’s safety, or the women who impatiently charged ahead for free rations of food. Tuesday’s Dawn editorial echoed my sentiments exactly when it stated, “The women and children who jostled and pushed their way towards handouts were not driven by greed; they were driven by hunger and the fear of starvation.”
According to the World Food Program, 24 percent of Pakistan’s population is undernourished and 38 percent of children are underweight. The current state of hunger, noted the agency, is “alarming.” Moreover, factors like Ramadan and the sugar and wheat shortages have exacerbated rising food prices. Given that two-thirds of Pakistan’s 160 million people subsist on less than $2 a day, a surge in food prices endangers their very survival. As Dawn noted, “The accouterments of [Pakistan's] state power and prestige ring hollow when people are dying in their search for food.”