Every Ramzan, the idea of a special market selling edibles at concessional rates to low income families is mooted, and every Ramzan – in keeping with the spirit of the month – the government gives direction to set up these ‘bazaars’.  It is a great notion; that exists only in theory. This mythical “sasta bazaar” which provides cheap and quality food is found nowhere.

Ramzan is barely a week old and reports are flooding in from Peshawar to Sialkot that traders are flouting government fixed price lists to sell edibles at exorbitant rates. The government claims it is sending out numerous inspection teams and conducting raids; even the Chief Minister of Punjab was photographed on an “inspection” of such markets. However, the traders were one step ahead of Shahbaz Sharif. Rates are changed and price lists removed once inspection teams leave. In several places the whole bazaar is put in place just for the inspection team, and scuttled as soon as they leave.

The government can’t be everywhere at the same time, that is true, but if it is fooled by such simple tricks then there is no point of these bazaars anymore. The objective of the food department, district administration, police and local government bodies is to ensure that its price lists are followed, not that is has carried out sufficient inspections. If traders can still flout rules, then it has failed.

The authorities need to change tactics. Inspections need to be replaced by permanent inspectors assigned to specific bazaars. Those who flout set lists, or try to trick the low income consumers in any way need to be sanctioned and punished. Announcing sasta bazaars isn’t enough, they have to be enforced – with zeal and ingenuity.

Enforcement becomes important because abusing the pricing isn’t the only problem besetting these bazaars. To make up for the loss of profits traders are substandard edibles that would have normally been thrown away. In Sialkot, consumers have boycotted the bazaar because the flour sold there “is not fit to feed cattle” and according to some witnesses, roti made from the flour sold turned black. In Daska, traders have resorted to short-selling, and in other have started hoarding essential goods such as dates – whose prices have doubled in Ramzan.

Perhaps the true cause for these problems is the greed of traders who refuse to be left out of the economic bonanza that is Ramzan, but the government has to shoulder some blame too. Traders claim the fixed price list leaves no room for a profit, and they should have been consulted. The government for its part has not managed to ensure compliance with its edicts, and in many areas has left enforcement to the spirit of charity and essence of Ramzan – two very fickle notions.