Iran food initiative spurs confusion

Last-minute changes to an Iranian government scheme to provide lower-income citizens with food has left many confused.

Tehran during snowfall on February 2, 2014. Despite heavy snowfall residents still lined up hoping to receive free food staples as part of a government initiative. Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA
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TEHRAN // Millions of Iranians went to the grocery store this week to pick up their staple foods for free under an ambitious plan to ease the public’s economic woes.

But rather than praising the initiative that provides 10 kilos of rice, two packs of cheese, two bottles of oil, 24 eggs and 4kg of chicken, many lower-income Iranians were left confused and dissatisfied.

President Hassan Rouhani’s government launched the programme on Sunday to help Iranians earning less than five million rials (Dh737) a month. It was intended to ease the burden of rampant inflation and highlight the economic benefits of the interim nuclear deal with western powers, which offers Iran sanctions relief in return for it curbing its uranium enrichment.

Instead, the programme has been beset with problems and has attracted criticism from the people it was meant to help.

Braving cold weather and heavy snow, long queues formed outside state-owned stores all around the country as people waited to collect their food baskets. Many were unsure of their eligibility for the handouts while others who collected food complained about its origin and poor quality.

“It’s just a waste of time for me. The rice and chicken are very low quality,” said Mojtaba Gholami, 50, a former government clerk and the head of a family of three in Tehran. “My wife will give them away to real poor people, who really need this food.”

For the initial phase, the government announced that between 15 million and 17 million citizens, including workers, retirees, married students and members of the clergy, could collect the free food until the Iranian New Year on March 21. Each family is entitled to one food package.

But the night before the plan was launched, the government announced that only those earning less than 5 million rials a month would be eligible.

Millions of Iranians are in need of financial assistance as the average monthly wage is about Dh1,250 and inflation is at 38 per cent after years of international sanctions and economic mismanagement.

“My husband works at a car wash and earns 6 million rials a month. We have two kids and live in a rental place but they do not give it to us. So who do they give it to?” said Zahra, 38, a housewife, who shoved her way to the front of the line only to hear that her family would not receive a package.

The food programme came under attack in parliament on Tuesday, when the speaker asked the government to explain why the decision was taken to provide handouts only to those earning less than five million rials.

“The government should quickly correct the trend of distribution. Some groups including farmers, who are not in an appropriate economic situation, couldn’t use the package,” Ali Larijani said.

Meanwhile, 30 parliamentarians are seeking to impeach the industry minister, Mohammad Nematzadeh, over the ministry’s decision to fill the basket with rice from India, viewed as lower quality, instead of Iranian produce.

“I waited for an hour in the line to get these low quality products. I would prefer it if Rouhani gave it to us in cash like the monthly cash payments that Ahmadinejad started,” said Mansour, 65, a retiree living in Narmak, a middle-income neighbourhood in eastern Tehran. He declined to give his last name.

Under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mr Rouhani’s predecessor, more than 90 per cent of Iran’s 77 million people received monthly cash handouts to offset rising energy and food costs. The progamme cost ten trillion rials, according to Mehdi Kochakzadeh, a legislator from Tehran. The country’s burgeoning budget deficit is expected to reach 500 trillion rials in the next Iranian calender year.

Mr Rouhani’s government is eager to reduce spending and decided to introduce eligibility requirements for handouts.

Monday was the second day of the food distribution and in Tehran, where residents found out about their eligibility via SMS, people stood in long lines in snow in front of state-owned chain stores such as Shahrvand (Citizens) and ETKA to receive their baskets.

Two people died of heart failure while waiting and a young baker suffered a stroke when he realised he was not on the list, Iranian media reported.

“The process was very confusing. I think the government was unable to arrange and manage the plan effectively,” said Jafar Khazali, 67, a retired member of the armed forces, in central Tehran.

The programme insulted ordinary Iranians and the government should rather create jobs for the young so that his two adult children, who are both unemployed, can find work, he said.

“Most of the people still don’t know about the change in the programme and that they will have more time,” said Ali, 52, a store worker in south Tehran, commenting on the change in eligiblity.

“Yesterday, we witnessed people who were really frustrated. I sent people 25 home because they were not on the list.”