Page last updated at 17:38 GMT, Monday, 14 September 2009 18:38 UK

Karachi stampede lifts lid on poverty

By Syed Shoaib Hasan
BBC News, Islamabad

Pakistani women mourn the death of their relatives at a hospital after a stampede in Karachi on September 14, 2009.
Women and children were in search of food being distributed free of charge.

The stampede in which more than a dozen women and children were killed has highlighted the poverty to be found in Pakistan's southern port city of Karachi.

Khori Garden, the neighbourhood where the incident took place, is a congested area lined with narrow streets where wholesalers operate warehouses of wheat, grain and pulses.

Some of the area is so confined that it is difficult for an adult man to walk straight through.

It was in one of these lanes that an argument broke out as food was being distributed free of charge by a charity.

Poverty levels have been on the rise in Karachi and the prices of staple goods has skyrocketed too.

The market was reportedly thronging with hundreds of people seeking scarce foodstuffs such as wheat and sugar.

Witnesses say that moments after the argument there was a mini-stampede in which mostly women and children who had come to get some much-needed wheat were trampled or crushed.

Poverty is on the rise, there is a desperation among people
Javed Hanif
Local government official

"The food was being distributed from a shop near here," a woman who managed to escape the stampede told the media.

"Dozens of women just leapt to grab the items and the man distributing just closed the gate.

"A melee started and then this happened," she said.

Eight people are reported to have died on the spot. Others died before medical assistance could arrive.

'Treacherous' city

The BBC's Arman Sabir in Karachi says the difficult nature of the location and the time of the incident made it very difficult for ambulance workers to get to the spot.

Pakistani relatives mourn the death of a stampede victim in Karachi on 14 September 2009
There were moving scenes in local hospitals

Karachi's police chief said it happened because the distribution took place in a confined area with no real precautions.

The ensuing confusion meant that it took several precious hours before the injured could be shifted to hospital.

That led to a higher death toll.

Late afternoon during Ramadan in central Karachi is a treacherous time by any standards.

It is characterised by hour-long traffic jams at signals. Ramadan is the Muslim holy month of fasting, which is followed by the Eid festival.

This leads to a profusion of encroaching vendors making roads extra difficult to navigate.

There were moving scenes in local hospitals where an emergency was declared, BBC correspondents in Karachi report.

Women in small groups sat crying and wailing, cradling children and other women.

Hospital workers were seen rushing bodies into emergency wards.

Most of the deaths and injuries were caused by suffocation.

Correspondents say that despite the massive rise in prices, especially during Ramadan, the government has appeared unable to provide relief to the city's poor.

"Poverty is on the rise, there is a desperation among people," local government official Javed Hanif told the Associated Press news agency.

"Naturally, when people are frustrated, whenever they get such an opportunity, they try to grab the maximum," he said.

The main reason for the rising price of food remains hoarding by mills and large wholesalers.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani had recently ordered a crackdown against them.

But this has failed to materialise thus far due to the lobby's massive influence in Pakistan's parliament.

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