Shaista Begum is fasting and it’s quite hot outside her home in New Delhi’s historical Chandni Chowk area. But the heat doesn’t deter her from making yet another attempt to find Rooh Afza, a popular rose-flavoured beverage, at a neighbourhood store.
The store still doesn’t have it. Determined, the 45-year-old mother of three children walked to an outlet of Hamdard, the company that makes the iconic drink, and is happy to find a bottle.
“I went to at least 10 shops in the area, which always used to have Rooh Afza. Strangely, everyone said it was not available in the market, which is why I walked in this heat and got it from this Hamdard store,” Shaista told Al Jazeera.
Since the holy month of Ramadan began this week, millions of Muslims in India have been greeted with a rude shock: a shortage of Rooh Afza, a staple in “iftar” (breaking of the fast at sunset), especially during the summers.
“Rooh Afza is a must for iftar,” said Shaista. “It has been a tradition for decades to have the drink mixed with water or milk. Everyone loves breaking their fast with it.”
Jameela Khatoon, 35, had come to Jama Masjid, a Mughal-era mosque in Old Delhi, along with her family members to have her iftar there. Upon seeing Rooh Afza being sold outside the grand mosque, she immediately bought four bottles.
“For the last four days, I went to at least 20 shops in our locality, but had to return empty-handed. Due to the unavailability, we were having lemon water during iftar,” she said.
“These bottles are enough for the month of Ramadan,” she said with a smile, holding the coveted glass bottles, which cost nearly $3 each, tightly in her hand.
Shortage in the market
Several distributors and wholesale dealers confirmed to Al Jazeera that there was a shortage of Rooh Afza in the Indian market.
Aijaz Ahmad, a dealer in Old Delhi, said, “There is an over 50 percent decline in the supply of Rooh Afza while demand is at its peak.”
Mohammad Siddiqui, another dealer in Muslim-dominated Okhla area, said he sent back at least 20 customers every day in the past week.
“It’s disheartening to see customers looking for their favourite drink in the holy month of Ramadan,” he said. “More than my business loss, it is the sadness on the customer’s face that worries me.”
It’s not just New Delhi. Ammar Yasir, a distributor in West Bengal state’s Asansol city, told Al Jazeera over the telephone, “I must have told no to over 250 people in the last couple of days.”
Some people complained of the black marketing of the popular beverage.
Mohammad Abdullah, a roadside vendor in Old Delhi, makes his living by selling the beverage outside Jama Masjid. A glass of water mixed with Rooh Afza sells at Rs 10 (20 cents).
“Ramadan is the peak season for our business. But due to supply constraints, we have to buy Rooh Afza from the black market at a higher price.”
Abdullah said some of his customers even offer to pay double the price for a Rooh Afza bottle. “That is how bad the situation is in the market.”
Hamdard Laboratories India, the company behind the household brand, is a 100-year-old manufacturer of Unani medicines (Perso-Arabic traditional medicines) and herbal FMCG products.
In 1906, Hakeem Abdul Majeed established a small clinic in Old Delhi to produce Unani medicines and named his venture “Hamdard” (empathy in Urdu).
Next year, he developed Rooh Afza, a herbal mix to help Delhi’s masses not only stay cool during the summers, but also help them counter heat strokes and prevent water loss.
A few decades later, Majeed turned his medicinal concoction into a drink, which became an instant hit.
After India’s independence and the creation of Pakistan in 1947, Majeed and his two sons stayed back while the rest of the family moved to Pakistan.
Majeed’s younger son Hakeem Mohammed Said established Hamdard Pakistan in Karachi and began producing Rooh Afza and other brands there.
According to media reports, the drop in the production is being blamed on the rift between the Hamdard family over control of the company with a $100m turnover.
At least two Hamdard officials told Al Jazeera about the shortage of Rooh Afza, but remained tight-lipped about the reasons for the shortfall.
In a statement released on Thursday, Hamdard Laboratories India said it is facing a shortage of key ingredients required to make Rooh Afza.
“With Ramadan and peak summer season coinciding, there has been an unprecedented demand in the market. Hamdard was facing supply constraints of certain herbal ingredients which were not available due to a temporary shortage,” said the statement, adding that it is trying for a “full-capacity production and distribution” of the beverage.
Saleem Khan, who sells the drink in Old Delhi to feed his family of seven, told Al Jazeera that business has gone down.
“I used to do a business of at least 100 bottles every day, but now it is down to just 35 to 40 bottles. I hope the company takes necessary measures so that the supply is maintained and our daily income is not hit.”
Pakistan offers help
As reports of a crisis of Rooh Afza in the Indian market began circulating, Usama Qureshi, who quit as Hamdard Pakistan CEO last week, tweeted that his company would be happy to help, if Indian authorities allow.
“We can supply Rooh Afza and Rooh Afza Go [a new carbonated version of the drink] to India during this Ramzan. We can easily send trucks through Wagah border if permitted by Indian government,” he tweeted in response to a story in the Indian press on the shortage.
Qureshi said Hamdard Pakistan exports to more than 36 countries, netting more than $7m in revenue.
He added that the company did not export to India because of trade restrictions in the wake of recent tensions between the two South Asian neighbours.
“Right now it is extremely difficult because India has imposed a 200 percent duty on Pakistani products. No products can be viable at that duty level,” he said.
India froze relations with Pakistan in the wake of a suicide attack in Indian-administered Kashmir in February that brought the nuclear-armed neighbours to the brink of war.
Speaking at a weekly press briefing on Thursday, Pakistan Foreign Office spokesperson Muhammad Faisal said the country would be willing to allow the export of Rooh Afza from Pakistan to meet the demand in India.
“If the supply of Rooh Afza from Pakistan quenches their thirst, then we will certainly want to do so,” Faisal said in response to a question.