By Yasaman Baji; source:
Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR)
No protests as fuel and food prices rise at start of
long-awaited subsidy reforms.
Customers in Kouhdasht, western Iran, queue up to withdraw payments made to
them for subsidy cuts.
(Photo: Mohsen Tizhoush, Mehr News Agency)
The launch of cuts to food and fuel subsidies in Iran went off
more smoothly than anyone expected, the only excitement coming as people rushed
to the bank to access the one-off payment they received by way of compensation.
On December 20, day one of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's
Subsidy Smart Plan, police officers were deployed on major streets, squares and
petrol stations in the capital Tehran and other large cities to prevent possible
protests against the cuts.
Subsidies on 16 goods and services including fuel,
electricity, water, wheat flour and bread, rice, cooking oil, milk and sugar are
being phased out over a five-year period. Petrol now retails at 70 US cents a
litre, up from 40 cents, while diesel has gone from 1.6 to 35 cents a litre.
Wheat flour that bakers could previously buy for well under
once cent per kilogram now sells at 28 or 30 cents. Water used to be charged at
an average of under one cent per cubic metre, a cost which now runs at between
25 to 37 cents.
Thousands of government inspectors have been sent out to
ensure that shopkeepers do not sell at higher prices than those stipulated by
In any event, there was no trouble. For one thing, the cuts
were launched just as Iranians were busy preparing for Yalda, a traditional
family-centred festival marking the longest night of the year, December 21.
The immediate impact was that people rushed to their banks to
get hold of their compensation money, which had been placed in their accounts
some time earlier but was only accessible when the Subsidy Smart Plan came into
On the day, Iranians received a one-off payment of 810,000
rials - about 80 dollars. Only households in which each member's monthly income
was less than 130 dollars were eligible for the compensation, although Economy
and Finance Minister Shamsoddin Hosseini pointed out that this encompassed 70
per cent of the population.
Account-holders formed long queues at ATMs until the early
hours of the morning to withdraw cash or transfer the funds from one account to
another, apparently fearing that the government might freeze the funds or even
take them back. As one bank customer put it, "I immediately transferred the
money into a different account to place it out of the government's reach."
The run on ATMs disrupted computerised banking systems across
much of Iran, with Kerman, Luristan, Khorasan and Sistan-Baluchestan provinces
President Ahmadinejad's government has long pressed for reform
of an economic system in which the prices of fuel, foodstuffs and other items
are held at artificially low levels by subsidies. It argues that the country can
no longer sustain the costs involved, and that in any case budget spending
decisions should target the neediest rather than benefiting those who can afford
Iran's parliament, the Majlis, worried that the dual effect of
freeing up prices and injecting cash into circulation through compensation
payments would lead to high inflation rates. After prolonged wrangling, it
approved the reforms only after insisting that price rises happen gradually over
a five-year period.
Ahead of the launch, television and radio stations carried
programmes explaining how the cuts would work and preparing people for higher
prices. Officials and analysts attempted to reassure people that as long as they
used water, electricity and gas in a sensible manner, their utility bills would
not shoot up. The authorities also ran courses for public-sector employees to
encourage them to back the initiative.
The government made it clear it would not brook public
criticism of its reform programme.
Trade Minister Mehdi Ghazanfari warned that anyone who
disrupted implementation of the plan would face prosecution for "economic
corruption", an offence that can carry the death penalty.
A security guard at Iran's telecommunications ministry said
the government had issued instructions "to dismiss any employee who objects to
the subsidy plan".
To underline the message, a left-wing economist called
Fariborz Rais Dana who had spoken out against eliminating subsidies, was
arrested on the evening prior to the launch.
One thing the media did not report was the street protests in
Bolivia against the elimination of fuel subsidies, which began at roughly the
Although protests might have seemed most likely in Tehran,
given the city's role as the hub of political opposition, popular reactions
there seemed more sober than in other parts of the country, with a greater focus
on energy-saving methods and less of a rush to cash the compensation payments.
One immediate effect of the fuel price hike was that Tehran
drivers began using their cars less. The deputy governor of Tehran province,
Mohammad-Reza Mahmoudi, reported a six to ten per cent fall in traffic volumes
in the days that followed, and expressed hope that if this was sustained it
might improve air quality in this heavily polluted city.
From conversations overheard in shops and taxis, it is clear
many Tehran residents are consciously adjusting to the new situation. They are
turning lights off, watching how much water they use, and installing
double-glazing - this in a city where it was common to leave radiators and gas
heaters on with the windows open.
Ten days after the cuts came into effect, the energy ministry
reported a seven per cent fall in electricity consumption and five per cent each
for water and gas in Tehran.
Nevertheless, many fear these measures will not be enough to
save them from punishing utility bills later this spring.
"Until they have their water, electricity and gas bills in
their hands, people won't realise what this plan means," an economic journalist
In other parts of Iran, people carried on with their lives
after the initial rush to the banks, apparently unconcerned about the wider
impact of subsidy cuts.
The declining subsidies on fuel will mean higher transport
costs, making goods more expensive in the shops.
In towns where there is no mains gas supply, people are now
paying 32,000 rials or about three dollars for gas cylinders that formerly cost
them under a third of that amount.
"It will take two to three months for the real impact of this
project to play out on people's lives, and that's the point at which their
reaction should be surveyed," an Iranian economist said,
Another economist, who believes the subsidy reform is a
much-needed step, said the government would be wise to use the intervening
period to build public support, communicating accurate information and avoiding
"The government needs the people's cooperation for the success
of this project, so it must be honest with them," he said.
About the author: Yasaman Baji is the pseudonym of an Iranian Journalist based
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