Wheat crisis set to haunt Shehbaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz governments

Wheat procurement and supply is once again set to haunt the Shehbaz Sharif government as well as the provincial government headed by Maryam Nawaz as farmers in Pakistan’s breadbasket, Punjab, are out on the streets protesting against low prices, delayed procurement and drastic cuts in government quota. The farmers are now forced to sell their produce to middlemen and flour millers at low prices, raising the spectre of high prices for consumers across the country.

Instead of hearing the farmers, the government ordered a crackdown on the anxious farmers who were protesting against, what they called, an unfair wheat procurement policy. The farmers were particularly incensed at the delay in the purchase of grain and the decision to reduce the provincial procurement quota from over 4 million tonnes to 2.3m tonnes. Several hundred farmers were rounded up in Rahim Yar Khan, Khanewal, Vehari, Kasur, Multan, Sadiqabad, Pakpattan, Muzaffargarh, and Sahiwal districts. The farmers now threaten to block the highways across Punjab province in the days ahead.

In the last few years, millions across the country had to ration their food due to high prices and low availability of wheat flour. Several persons, queued for

rationed quota, died in the melee last year. Wheat smugglers and hoarders made a killing on the other hand. Despite such a big tragedy, the government seems not to have learnt any lessons from the past. The likelihood of wheat flour tragedy affecting the country in the later part of the year remains high given the government’s ham-handed policy towards wheat procurement quota and prices.

Every season Punjab procured over 4 million tonnes to meet its yearly requirements. But, this year for strange reasons the government decided to slash the procurement target by half, claiming that there was a carryover stock of 2.3m tonnes already available. This was the result of a bad policy decision during the caretaker regime when the country imported around 3 million tonnes of wheat.

The Punjab government confounded the problem by making ill-informed policy decisions like changing the procedure for applying to sell wheat to the food department. The growers applied via written applications to procure gunny bags to pack and transport wheat to procurement centres. The new policy directed them to use a new mobile application for the purpose, ignoring the reality that a majority of the rural population is not well-versed in technology. Despite such stumbling blocks, over 400,000 growers applied for gunny bags. The government then said it would issue six bags per acre and only to those who owned up to six acres of land. The farmers claim that the decision was malafide because of owners of up to six acres rarely sold their produce to the government as they retain half of their produce for domestic use and the rest for middlemen, fertiliser and pesticide dealers to settle debts on inputs.

The farmers are also upset at the delay in the procurement process as middlemen exploited the government’s dithering to make a killing in the market by buying wheat from growers at a far lower price than the fixed support price of Rs3,900 per 40kg.

The farmers do not trust the government’s promise of a Rs 130 billion subsidy package and an additional subsidy between Rs400 and Rs600 per 40kg instead of increasing the procurement target. The farmers believed that it was merely a ruse to relieve the pressure on the government.

The farmers are now hit by the unseasonal rain which has made it difficult to leave the bundles of wheat harvested in open fields. This has forced them to sell wheat to middlemen at lower prices than let their crops be damaged in the rains.

Both Punjab Chief Minister Maryam Nawaz and Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif could find themselves facing public ire if there was no quick relief to the farmers in the procurement season. The lessons of the recent past are difficult to forget, when millions stood in queues across the country for wheat flour, many fell dead in the melee and children had to survive with one meal a day.

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