Wheat flour crisis deepens amid blame game

Updated January 19, 2020

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PPP Chairman Bilawal alleges centre sent 40,000 tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan. — AFP/File
PPP Chairman Bilawal alleges centre sent 40,000 tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan. — AFP/File

• National food security secretary says Sindh was asked to purchase 14 million tonnes of wheat, but it paid no heed
• Bilawal alleges centre sent 40,000 tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan

ISLAMABAD: Amid an unprecedented price hike, another crisis in the form of wheat flour shortage has hit people across the country while the government and other stakeholders pass on the buck to one another instead of taking the responsibility and finding a remedy.

The crisis, which has been looming for the past several months, became severe only a day after Prime Minister Imran Khan had issued orders to the provincial governments to play an active role in curbing food prices, profiteering and hoarding.

The nanbais of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have announced that they will go on a strike tomorrow (Monday) against the government, as their various associations in Punjab have given a five-day ultimatum to the government asking it to provide them flour at the previous rate or allow them to raise the prices of naan and roti.

While the flour crisis equally hit all the four provinces and the federal capital, those at the helm of affairs on Saturday politicised the issue with the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf-led federal and provincial governments of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa blaming the Pakistan Peoples Party-ruled Sindh for wheat shortage. However, the Sindh government held the Centre responsible for the wheat crisis and subsequent increase in flour prices.

According to National Food Security (NFS) secretary Hashim Popalzai, the recent strike of transporters was the main reason behind short supply of wheat as mills did not get wheat on time. He believed the “temporary” crisis would be over within days and the situation would further improve with the arrival of new wheat crop in Sindh by March 20 and in Punjab by April 15.

Mr Popalzai alleged the Sindh government had been asked to purchase 14 million tonnes of wheat, but the provincial government did not pay heed. He said the country’s total monthly requirement of wheat was 2.2 million tonnes and the government already had 4.2 million tonnes wheat in its stock.

Former secretary general of the PTI Jahangir Tareen, who was at the temporary headquarters of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan in Karachi, said flour price would soon come down as the “federal government has decided to allow duty-free import of wheat”.

Mr Tareen, who was part of a PTI team formed by PM Khan to appease its allies, said the federal government had provided 400,000 tonnes of wheat to the Pakistan Agriculture Storage and Services Cooperation (Passco) some two months ago when the crisis had just begun. He claimed that Passco still had 300,000 tonnes of wheat and vowed that the government would transport 10,000 tonnes of wheat on a daily basis to Karachi and Hyderabad through the National Logistics Cell (NLC).

Mr Tareen then advised the Sindh government to lift wheat from Passco.

An office-bearer of Muttahida Nanbai Welfare Association, Shafiq Qureshi, said they had held several rounds of talks with Mr Tareen and other government representatives besides the Rawalpindi’s local administration, but to no avail.

Additional Deputy Commissioner, Rawalpindi, Anwar Zaheer Jappa, said they had made it clear that the government would not allow any increase in prices. “Nanbais complained about shortage of wheat flour and we offered them to provide wheat flour directly from the mills, but they did not give us the list of their member tandoor owners,” he said.

He claimed there was no shortage in Rawalpindi. Last month, he said, they had supplied 22,000 bags of wheat flour to allocated points at main markets for selling wheat flour at the official rate of Rs805 per 20kg bag. However, he said, they sold only 4,000 bags.

Condemning the surge in wheat prices, Opposition Leader in the National Assembly and President Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) Shahbaz Sharif in a statement from London said the government’s incompetence had triggered the crisis and demanded strict action against those responsible.

PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari said the Imran Khan’s government had turned the country, which was a wheat exporter, into a wheat importer. He alleged that the federal government had sent 40,000 metric tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan, and thus, intentionally had created a wheat crisis.

As people are forced to buy flour at highest-ever price of about Rs70 per kg in Lahore, growers have held the flour mill owners and the Punjab government responsible for the “Aatta crisis”.

“It is absolutely incompetence of the government that has failed to control mafias, mainly the flour millers and those involved in smuggling wheat to Afghanistan via Torkham border,” said Pakistan Kissan Ittehad chairman Khalid Khokhar.

He said the crisis began as the government had not procure adequate wheat from farmers at the support price of Rs1,300, the rate that had not been changed for many years despite massive increase in production cost.

“If the food department has sufficient reserves of wheat, why it has waited for increase rates in the open market,” he wondered.

According to flour millers in Punjab, the commodity shortage emerged in the open market after massive consumption of wheat at poultry or animal feed mills across the province. “There is no issue with us as we are selling flour at the regulated prices. The food department is providing 25,000 tonnes wheat daily to us. And the issue is at flour grinding units (Chakis) and not with us,” Asim Raza, an office-bearer of the Punjab Flour Mills Association, said.

The flour grinding vendors (Atta Chakki owners) refused to sell flour below the price of Rs70 per kg keeping in view of massive increase in 40kg-wheat price to Rs2,150.

“While we are buying wheat at Rs2,150 per 40 kg, how can we sell it below Rs70 a kg. We bear Rs8 per kg grinding and Rs2 per kg wheat cleaning cost,” said Atta Chaki Association General Secretary Abdul Rehman.

Mr Rehman said the government never bothered to workout prices of flour being sold at grinding units. He said if the government forced them to sell flour at the rate of Rs60 per kg, they would be compelled to shut units.

Punjab Food Department Director Wajid Ali Shah dispelled the impression of wheat shortage in the province and said the flour price was artificially enhanced to Rs70 in wake of its high price in KP and Sindh.

In Karachi, the five-kg and 10kg flour bags of Bake Parlor and Ashrafi brands further rose to Rs340-350 and Rs660-670 as compared to Rs310-330 and Rs630-640, respectively, two days back.

Some retailers demand Rs680 to Rs700 for branded 10kg fine flour brands, thus alarming consumers for further jump in prices. Chakki Flour and super fine flour (Maida) sell at Rs70 per kg.

PFMA Sindh Zone Chairman Khalid Masood said the supply of wheat to Karachi mills might improve next week to 10,000 tonnes a day from Passco godowns. He said millers had not got proper wheat supply from the government.

From Jan 1 to 15, mills in Karachi received only 14,000 tonnes against allocation of 62,000 tonnes. Karachi’s monthly wheat requirement is between 200,000 and 225,000 tonnes.

Sindh Agriculture Minister Ismail Rahu said the official price of flour in Karachi was Rs45 per kg and warned the mill and shop owners that the government would seal the outlets selling flour at higher prices.

The KP government announced that the Punjab had lifted ban on supply of flour to the province, following PM’s intervention.

KP information minister Shaukat Yousafzai told a presser that following the PM’s intervention, officials from both the provinces agreed on a coordination mechanism to keep the prices in check.

PML-N president said the PTI and its leader must tell the people of Pakistan the real reasons behind the crisis. “Who is benefiting from this crisis? Was the stock smuggled? Where exactly did it go and who is responsible for this massive incompetence which has impacted the entire country?” he demanded.

Similarly, Mr Bilawal said the government had a lot of wheat but that was not being supplied to the people. He alleged that the PM had perhaps created this crisis to benefit his cronies.

Khalid Hasnain from Lahore, Aamir Shafaat Khan and Azfar-ul-Ashfaque from Karachi, Manzoor Ali from Peshawar and Aamir Yasin and Ikram Junaidi from Rawalpindi also contributed to this report

Published in Dawn, January 19th, 2020