Prices of wheat from which the staple ‘roti’, the principally consumed bread, is made are hitting the roof during the holy Ramadan month. The worst sufferers are the people of the remote north that Pakistan illegally controls.
To the shortages of imported wheat are added complaints of hoarding and black marketing of the commodity in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir and the Gilgit Baltistan region.
Busy cooking its own bread — “apni roti sekhna” is the local saying – Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government, fighting its political opponents, has ignored the wheat shortage.
Food is hugely subsidized to keep control over the population. But the subsidy is hurting the economy and now, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) wants it to go, along with all subsidies before it can bail out Pakistan’s stressed economy.
“The finance ministry has been critical of the huge price gap and rising subsidy account amid fiscal reviews with the International Monetary Fund. The ministry has been trying to either clip or contain subsidies while the political government tends to appease the population ahead of general elections,” Dawn reported (March 27, 2023).
The federal government subsidises wheat in these areas. It is now asking the provincial authorities to ‘rationalise’ the prices. This essentially means taxing the affluent with higher prices and feeding the poor. In practice, it is difficult to draw the rich-poor line, the provinces complain.
The north suffers delays, besides higher transport costs. This, plus local corruption and business malpractices places the public at the disadvantage, more so when jobs have been lost and the wages of those who have them have remained stagnant for four years.
Pakistan as of now has 41.3 per cent inflation and wheat imports have been difficult amidst a serious foreign exchange crisis.
In these critical times, the federal government is heartlessly reminding the northern region that the subsidised wheat it gets is several times cheaper than what the rest of the country gets. A record seen by Dawn newspaper shows that flour currently sells for Rs12.5 per kg in Gilgit-Baltistan against Rs140 or more across the country.
The provinces do not dispute this, but ask if there is any other way it can procure wheat supplies that are reasonably priced and are made available on time.
Gilgit Baltistan was allotted PKR eight billion for a whole year. But the price of imported wheat has eaten into the allotment with the purchase of just two months’ supplies. The Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) of the federal government has sanctioned 25,000 tonnes to ease inconvenience during Ramadan, but no supplies have been reached with the observance of the month already underway.
Besides ‘rationalising’ the distribution, Dawn reported (March 27, 2023), the provinces that produce little or no wheat of their own have been asked to prepare plans for local cultivation of the commodity. This is undoubtedly a long-term process, assuming it is begun and funds and inputs are provided, the provincial authorities told the ECC.
In January this year, the authorities in Islamabad, denied any wheat shortage and blamed it on the provinces making false complaints because the latter were inefficient in distributing wheat and wheat products.
It was in January, again, that Balochistan province complained of a serious wheat shortage. But the federal government brushed off its pleas.
Significantly, all along, Islamabad was telling the world that its wheat crop had hugely suffered due to unprecedented floods in July last year but failed to match the imports. The flood relief coming from the world community was not properly utilized to stem the shortage.
Food mismanagement is, actually, an old story in Pakistan. “For the last few decades, Pakistan’s agriculture sector has become the happiest hunting ground for crises. Going from one crisis to the next, the entire sector is operating in a firefighting mode and that too without any policy or regulatory effort on the part of the government, allowing the market to determine and extract its windfall,” Ahmed Fraz Khan wrote in January this year. Now the crisis has come to a head and some areas have witnessed public demonstrations. The crisis is serious and is unlikely to be resolved any time soon, media reports say. (Ends)