Stampede at Ramadan food distribution centre kills 11 in Pakistan

Women and children die when people panic and push each other to collect food in Karachi, officials say.

Women leave while others wait their turn to get a free sack of wheat flour at a distribution point, in Lahore, Pakistan, Thursday, March 30, 2023. Government is providing free flour to deserving and poor families during the Muslim's holy month of Ramadan due to high inflation in the country. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)
Women leave with their free sack of wheat flour at a distribution point in Lahore, Pakistan [File: KM Chaudary/AP]

A stampede at a Ramadan food distribution centre in Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi has killed at least 11 people, all women and children, according to police and rescue officials.

Several people were also injured in Friday’s incident, which happened when hundreds of people panicked and started pushing each other to collect food outside a factory. Some of them fell into a nearby drain, police official Mughees Hashmi said.

Residents said a wall also collapsed near the drain, injuring and killing people amid the stampede.

Local media reported that eight women and three children died.

Hashmi said the factory owner who organised the food distribution centre had not alerted police about the plan. He said local police were unaware of the distribution, otherwise they might have deployed forces.

Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who is from Sindh province, whose capital is Karachi, ordered authorities to investigate what caused the incident.

The stampede is the deadliest at Ramadan food distribution points since the start of the Muslim holy month of fasting last week.

With the latest incident, the death toll from stampedes at free food centres across the country has risen to at least 21 since last week.

Local resident Mohammad Arsalan said he lives near the factory where people had gathered since the morning to collect the free food. He said he did not know what exactly caused the incident, but “we heard cries and later learned about this stampede”.

Friday’s incident comes a day after authorities ordered the deployment of additional police at the Ramadan food distribution centres to avoid dangerous overcrowding.

Cash-strapped Pakistan faces one of the worst economic crises of its history. Millions of people are struggling to put food on the table as a cost of living crisis worsens.

Large crowds of people have been gathering at distribution centres since the government launched an initiative last week to give free flour to low-income families during Ramadan to ease the impact of record-breaking inflation and soaring poverty.

Struggling to keep the economy afloat, the government has been desperate to reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to resume a $6.5bn loan programme that has been essentially suspended since November.

The IMF has put forward a set of demands for the release of a $1.1bn instalment. It includes liberalising the rupee’s exchange rate, removing subsidies and raising taxes.

On Friday, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif visited a wheat flour distribution centre in the capital, Islamabad, and met women who had come to collect flour. Sharif asked authorities to ensure that people are treated well and there are no further incidents.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies