LAHORE: The farmers who had been protesting low potato price and demanding immediate export of the crop yield under the banner of the Pakistan Kissan Ittehad (PKI), on Wednesday called off their agitation on The Mall after the government assured them of taking steps to resolve the issue.

The death of Malik Mazhar Abbas, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf MPA from Multan, is said to be another another reason behind the early conclusion of the protest, as the deceased was an agriculturist and well-known in the farmers community.

“We ended the protest after the government pledged to hold a special meeting with the farmers’ representatives at Islamabad on January 23 (Wednesday) and work out a strategy to export potato, while also considering subsidy. So we all agreed to this and called off the protest,” PKI’s chairman Khalid Khokhar told Dawn.

“Death of MPA Malik Mazhar Abbas Raan was another reason behind calling off the protest as he was also a farmer having good relations with the growers’ community. Had he not died, the protest could have prolonged for another day,” he added.

According to official sources, the Punjab government was in contact with the federal government on the issue of potato price and was watching the massive protests by the farmers, first in the districts and then in Lahore at the Charing Cross, The Mall. However, the situation turned serious on Wednesday after the growers spent chilly Tuesday night under open sky that heightened their anger and finally forced them to set a huge quantity of potato on fire. Similarly, the solidarity expressed by political leaders with the protesting farmers also forced the government to amicably resolve the issue to end the protest that had been continuing since Tuesday (January 15).

“The committee constituted by the government will be headed by Finance Minister Asad Umar, Advisor to PM Razak Dawood, Minister for food Security Mehboob Sultan, Punjab agriculture minister Nauman Langrial, Agriculture Secretary

Dr Wasif Khurshid and the PKI representatives. During the meeting of the committee to be held on January 23, the government would take a decision on the potato export. The committee may also allow subsidy to the farmers for export,” Mr Khokhar explained. He added that once the government decided to go for export, the potato’s price in the local market would automatically improve.

At present, he said, the potato’s price in the local wholesale market is Rs600 per 120kg bag. So if the cost of carriage, picking, commission etc also includes, the price would reduce to Rs550 or so per 120kg potato bag. It means, the potato price ranges between Rs4.50 to Rs5 that is much less than the total cost incur on sowing, labour, pesticides spray, picking, carriage etc.

“I want to tell the government to look into this issue very seriously by resolving it in the scheduled meeting, failing which we would have no option but to launch countrywide protests,” Khokhar warned.

Earlier, the opposition parties expressed solidarity with the protesting farmers. A PPP delegation led by Syed Hasan Murtaza joined the protest. “We are with the farmers, as they are seeking their right to live here. But the PTI government

has even snatched bread from the people, particular the farmers,” deplored Mr Murtaza.

Meanwhile, the party Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari also expressed solidarity with the farmers. “The farmers

are burning their crops, but the government is silent,” he regretted in a statement.

The PML-N leaders also joined the protest, lambasting the government for ignoring the farmers’ demands.

After the PKI called off the protest, the farmers mostly belonging to Okara, Pakpattan, Sahiwal, Vehari, Khanewal, Multan, Kasur and Jhang districts started returning to their native areas.

“Who wants to protest in such a harsh weather? But we had to after the government kept ignoring our small protests,” a farmer told this reporter while packing up on The Mall.

Published in Dawn, January 17th, 2019