ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani shopkeepers went on strike Saturday against the rising cost of living, including rising fuel and utility bills and the record depreciation of the rupee against the dollar, sparking discontent widespread among the public.
Shopkeepers lowered their blinds across the country, while protesters burned tires on the roads to express their anger.
The strike was called by former senator Sirajul Haq, who heads the Jamaat-e-Islami religious political party, and was largely supported by business and trade bodies, market associations, bar associations and transporters.
The commercial and economic center of the country, Karachi, was almost completely closed and vehicle traffic was light on the roads, with all markets and commercial centers closed.
“We have closed our stores in protest so that our message reaches the ruling class. If they don’t take our problems into account, we will come up with other strategies, said Fahad Ahmed, a shopkeeper from Karachi, adding: “If you pay 100,000 rupees ($330) in rent for your shop and you have to pay the same amount on your electricity bill, how can you survive?
In the eastern city of Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, all major markets were closed during the day, lawyers remained outside the courts and intercity and local public transport was not working. The northwestern city of Peshawar and the southwestern city of Quetta were partially locked down.
Pakistan’s annual inflation rate was 27.4% in August, according to data released by the state Bureau of Statistics.
Pakistan was on the brink of default before reaching a lifesaving deal with the International Monetary Fund. As part of the conditions for the bailout package, Pakistan was required to reduce subsidies that had been put in place to cushion the impact of the rising cost of living. This likely contributed to rising prices, especially energy costs.
Mohammad Sohail, a leading economist and director of Topline Securities, said that despite the IMF program, Pakistan is going through a difficult time.
He said the government is trying to implement the painful reforms dictated by the IMF while political polarization is affecting sentiments.
“Inflation is a big problem for ordinary Pakistanis. And this inflation is mainly driven by the fall of the rupee. Strict stabilization measures with the enhancement of foreign exchange reserves can stabilize the currency and inflation in the future,” Sohail said.
The value of the Pakistani rupee has depreciated significantly against the dollar, surpassing a historical threshold of 300 rupees per dollar. The depreciation of the exchange rate has caused higher import costs, which in turn can contribute to inflation.
Jamal Uddin, a shopkeeper taking part in a protest rally in Dera Ghazi Khan, said he and other shopkeepers were keeping their businesses closed in protest because they simply couldn’t feed their families anymore.
Shamim Bibi, a widow and mother of three in Multan, said her daughters had to drop out of school and her youngest son left to run a food stall to meet the family’s daily needs. “But now our lives are miserable because of wildly inflated electricity bills, high fuel and food prices, and rising house rents,” she said.
However, interim Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar downplayed the significance of the protests, calling the complaints “no problem.”
Mohammad Farooq in Karachi, Babar Dogar in Lahore, Asim Tanveer in Multan, Riaz Khan in Peshawar, and Abdul Sattar in Quetta, Pakistan contributed to this report.