Spiraling prices sour dates in Pakistan

By Aamir Latif

KARACHI, Pakistan (AA) – Behind skyscrapers and encroached by an illegal transport terminal, a bumpy street leads to Karachi’s famous Khajoor (date) market.

As the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan approaches, the century-old business point located in the southern district of Pakistan’s commercial capital bubbles with activity. Both retailers and wholesalers rush to purchase the most sought-after commodity.

Nestled in both corroded and new buildings, the entrance is blocked by a consistent traffic jam. The large portion of the front street is dug up. The repair work undertaken by utility agencies several months ago, is far from completion, portraying this historic place a picture of utter neglect.

But this does not stop date lovers thronging the market. Dozens of makeshift stalls, handcarts along with proper stores have come up to sell dates — a preferred commodity, to break fast at sunset, during the holy month of Ramadan.

-Rich variety

Hordes of different varieties of dates are lying on the floor, or on the carts whereas good-quality dates in fancy packing are stashed in the wooden cabins.

Not only Karachi but this market caters to the needs of the entire lower part of southern Sindh province, apart from up-country during the fasting month.

“People start thronging from the mid of Shaban [Islamic month that precedes Ramadan] to buy the stock either for their personal use or to gift their near and dear ones,” Mohammad Haroon, who has been in the business for the past four decades, told Anadolu Agency.

Irani variety Mazafati dates are favorite, because of their softness and reasonable price. Other famous varieties on sale are, Iraqi, Aseel, Karbalaee, Ajwa, Anber, and Mabroom, according to Haroon.

“I buy dates from here every year before Ramadan and gift them to my family members and friends back home,” said Taj Mohammad, who originally hails from northwestern Khyber Paktunkhawa province but currently lives in Karachi for business.

“This is the best place to buy high-quality dates at reasonable prices.That’s why not only me but thousands of others prefer to buy dates from here during Ramadan or otherwise,” Taj said, while standing with a small crowd buying the commodity at a makeshift shop.

A group of burqa-clad women had gathered around and engaged in hectic bargain at an adjacent stall. “There is no better gift than to give dates in Ramadan,” he maintained.

Pakistan is the world’s fifth-largest date producer in the world, contributing 11% to the total global production. Pakistan’s southeastern Khairpur district is one of the largest date-cultivating districts in the world.

According to Mohammad Bashir Arain, chairman of the Date Merchant Association Khairpur, around 130 varieties are grown in Pakistan.

India annually buys 400,000 metric tons of dried dates — commonly known as Chohara — from Pakistan, mainly from Khairpur district.

Haroon, who claims to be the market’s oldest trader, said his elder brother had set up business in the market way back in 1937.

“And he was not the first one. He told me that many others had already been doing business here,” he added.

-Neglecting history

This, one of the oldest business points in Karachi with a rich history, desperately requires major repairs and preservation.

The once-paved street is battered. The potholes and splintered stone bumps are a recipe for an imminent accident. Disorganized placement of handcarts, and makeshift shops have further narrowed down the street, making approach a nightmare, especially for women.

Scores of auto-rickshaws are also parked in a long queue, along the market entrance, turning it into a permanent and illegal transport terminal.

The site is also home to vegetable and fruit vendors, who use high-decibel sounds of their vocal cords to attract buyers. “This can be a major business attraction for Karachiites if the government pays a little attention and works to preserve the historic site,” Haroon said. “But I don’t think the government has time for that,” he laments.

-Spiraling prices

Traders complained that soaring prices, mainly because of a record devaluation of the Pakistani rupee against the U.S. dollar, has hit their business.

“There has been an average 50% increase in date prices due to the recent devaluation [of the rupee] which has affected our sales,” Haroon said.

“The Irani date, which used to sell at Rs 120 to Rs 140 [$1] per kilogram a couple of months ago, is now being sold at Rs 320 ($2.5) per kg. This has understandably reduced the buying power of consumers” he observed.

Traders import huge quantity of dates from Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia to meet local demand during Ramadan. Whereas, locally produced dates — in Khairpur and the coastal districts of southwestern Balochistan province — are also popular among consumers.

Fareed Ahmad, another shopkeeper, endorsed his colleague’s point.

“We have recorded 40 to 50% decrease in our sales this month, which otherwise used to be a month of roaring business for us,” he told Anadolu Agency.

“If you had come last year [at this time], I would not have even time to talk to you [because of rush],” he added.