LAHORE- A poor vegetable vendor died at the hands of ruthless officials of a market price control committee in sprawling Lahore city on Sunday morning.

What claimed the life of the 65-year-old was undue pressure from the committee officials, threat of imposition of an unjustified fine of Rs2,000 for selling spinach at Rs18 per kg – two rupees higher than the official rate – and above all a hit to the chest with the measuring scale.

Bashir Ahmad was a resident of Samanabad Town and used to eke out a living at Multan Chungi vegetable market from his daily purchase of measly Rs1200.

“The price control committee officials – Shahid, Ghyaas and Mushtaq – gave my brother a heart attack,” said Muhammad Saeed, who was informed about Ahmad’s death by another vendor over phone.

“They tried to snatch his measuring scale and threatened to impose a fine of Rs2000 on him for selling spinach at Rs18 per kg against the fixed rate of Rs16. They maltreated my brother,” he said sobbing inconsolably.

Retailers, lawyers and civil society activists condemned the incident, and demanded action against the ‘accused’ committee officials. They argued that the discretionary powers given to the price control magistrates for imposing fines on shopkeepers were both unjustified and unconstitutional.

Bashir Ahmad, who was still single, had been running his small business for the past 15 years. His trade showed he was not a big vendor. He would even go to the market by foot from his residence.

A witness, Kashif, confirmed the vendor was hit in the chest after which he died.

“My brother has been murdered. It was not a natural death. The committee officials, Town administration, price control magistrates, police and DCO office are hiding the reality,” Muhammad Saeed said, “He was bleeding in the nose and the mouth when he was being given a bath for burial.”

He said the market committee and police pressured them but they refused an autopsy. He also said he did not even know what police had written in the report, as he was not a literate. He said his family members had forgiven the accused persons in the name of Allah, but he would not.

Shahid, one of the accused, claimed that Bashir was selling spinach on a higher rate. He said on a complaint from a customer, the Multan Chungi Market Committee secretary had ordered a senior clerk, Mushtaq, to confiscate the measuring scale of Bashir and fine him Rs2000. Shahid maintained Mushtaq just asked Ahmad to sell spinach at the government rate, and returned back after issuing him a verbal warning.

However, another shopkeeper, who wished not to be named, said Ahmad died during the scuffle with Mushtaq. According to him, the elderly vendor had refused to sell spinach at Rs16/kg because his purchase price from the wholesale dealer was coming around Rs18/kg.

The district coordination officer has yet to order an inquiry into the matter. An official in City District Government Lahore claimed the incident was in the notice of DCO Javed Akhtar Qazi but he was not sure as to when an action would be taken.

The DCO refused to make a comment when contacted, and just said he was busy in a personal meeting. Another source in CDGL said the DCO was avoiding newsmen.

These days, imposing fine on small and big shopkeepers in the sprawling Lahore city has become a serious issue, as dozens of retailers have been complaining about work ethics of CDGL price control magistrates. Not surprisingly, CDGL raiding teams and magistrates avoid targeting big wholesalers, middlemen due to political pressure. More than often, they would target poor and small retailers and impose heavy fines on them under the plea of overcharging.

Muhammad Jamil, a shopkeeper in Iqbal Town, said the magistrates did not personally visited the markets, but imposed unjustified and heavy fines on retailers based on self-evolved reports of private informers.

“What is the justification of imposing a fine of Rs8000 on a small shopkeeper who is selling a dozen of eggs at a rate Rs100 after buying it at Rs98 from a wholesale dealer,” questioned Jamil, and said it was a shopkeeper’s right to make a justified profit.

He also said the government was forcing them to shut their businesses.

According to the shopkeeper, there should some slabs of fine as per the ratio of overcharging instead of giving discretionary powers to the magistrates and assistant commissioners for imposing unjustified and heavy fines.

“What should I do if a magistrate imposes Rs5000 fine every week based on reports of their uneducated informers,” Jamil questioned.

He said under this targeted drive the raiding parties were trying to filling up the provincial coffers by fining small and poor retailers heavily.

Imran Maqbool, a spokesperson for the DCO, admitted that the magistrates had the discretionary powers to impose fines on the retailers. He also admitted there were not any slabs, formal rules and regulations for fining shopkeepers.

Advocate Muhammad Azhar Siddique, Mushfaq Ahmad Khan and Fahad Ahmad said the discretionary powers of the magistrates for imposing fines were illegal and unconstitutional. They said there should be a classification for wholesale dealers, middlemen and retailers.

They said the Supreme Court of Pakistan should take a suo moto notice and review the powers of the magistrates. In case the superior judiciary doesn’t act, shopkeepers and vendors should file petitions before the courts challenging the powers of the magistrates.