Wheat row: Shehbaz demands inquiry as Sindh, PTI leaders bicker over countrywide shortage

Updated January 19, 2020

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(L-R): Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan, Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah, Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Shehbaz Sharif. —DawnNewsTV/AFP/File
(L-R): Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan, Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah, Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Shehbaz Sharif. —DawnNewsTV/AFP/File

As wheat prices remained exorbitantly high across the country on Sunday, the opposition and centre continued to bicker over who was to blame for the fast declining wheat reserves in the country.

While the PTI lay the blame squarely on the Sindh government, citing untimely purchasing and a subsequent shortage in supply to the flour mills, the Sindh government took exception to being the target of "a dirty blame game" and in turn held the prime minister responsible.

Meanwhile, the PPP and PML-N alleged that despite a shortage in reserves of wheat, the commodity had been exported. Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Shehbaz Sharif demanded an inquiry to determine who had authorised the move.

Furthermore, 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.

Sindh's negligence to blame: Awan

Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan said that the shortage of wheat in Sindh is due to the negligence of the provincial government, not the federal government.

Addressing a press conference in Sialkot on Sunday, Awan said: "After the Sindh government's negligence in not buying flour in a timely manner, 400,000 tonnes of wheat were given to the province from the federal government's strategic reserves on the directives of the prime minister."

"From the total wheat allocated, the Sindh government has only taken 100,000 tonnes of wheat. This goes to show that the shortage of wheat in Sindh, and the subsequent increase in the price of the commodity, is due to an issue in the supply.

"The Sindh government has failed to ensure that the wheat is supplied to mills in the province. Due to this, flour mills are not working at full capacity and there has been a sharp increase in flour prices.”

She urged the Sindh government to expedite the supply chain and provide flour to the mills so that prices can be reduced.

Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan addressing a press conference in Sialkot on Sunday. — DawnNewsTV
Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan addressing a press conference in Sialkot on Sunday. — DawnNewsTV

She explained that the "mafia", angered by the government's crackdown on real estate, has now taken to the markets to turn their ill-gotten gains into profit by buying and hoarding essential commodities.

"They are using their 'black money' to buy flour, lentils, rice and other essentials from the market and creating a shortage so that they are able to sell these items at exorbitant rates."

Asked when exactly the people of Pakistan will finally be given relief, Awan said: "You have to see who is responsible for the hike in prices. Is it a government which has been in power for only 15 months? Is this the government which was responsible for the devaluation of the rupee?"

"During the past 15 months, we have tried our best to prevent the economy from sinking under."

Listing the initiatives taken by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government to facilitate the underprivileged segments of society, Awan said that the reforms taken by the ruling party were difficult decisions but a necessary evil.

"Leaders are able to make unpopular decisions as they are making them for the country and not for the sake of political gains," she concluded.

Decline in prices soon: Bakhtiar

Minister for National Food Security and Research Khusro Bakhtiar said that the Sindh government had failed to procure even a single grain of wheat this year despite having a target of 700,000 tonnes. He said that the citizens of Sindh are as dear as any other in the country and the federal government will assume responsibility for their care.

Bakhtiar said that the federal government had provided 400,000 tonnes to Sindh, especially for Karachi and Hyderabad, but only 100,028 tonnes had been picked up.

Minister for National Food Security and Research Khusro Bakhtiar addressing a press conference on wheat shortage in Islamabad on Sunday. — PID
Minister for National Food Security and Research Khusro Bakhtiar addressing a press conference on wheat shortage in Islamabad on Sunday. — PID

He said he had spoken to the food department secretary and assured him that if additional wheat was required, Pakistan Agricultural Storage and Services Corporation (Passco) had committed to providing 50,000 to 100,000 tonnes more.

The minister expressed the hope that beginning tomorrow, consumers should witness a decline in wheat and flour prices.

PTI reps slam Sindh govt

Meanwhile, at a press conference in Karachi, PTI Sindh President Haleem Adil Sheikh said the shortage of wheat and the hike in prices have to be controlled by the Sindh government and their officials.

“There should be an inquiry. Bilawal sahib, either you or one of your people need to give us answer as to how the provincial food department is in debt to the tune of Rs90 billion.

"Secondly, please tell us where 0.4 million tonnes of wheat from a total of 0.8 million tonnes have gone?”

He maintained that in light of the situation, the federal government is in the process of sending 10,000 tonnes of wheat to Karachi and Hyderabad through NLC [National Logistics Cell]."

He added that currently, there are at least one million tonnes of wheat in the province, including the province's own reserves, the wheat given by the federal government and the wheat brought in through duty-free imports.

"Now it is the Sindh government's responsibility to ensure supply to the mills and to reduce flour prices," he said.

"The blame for this entire situation does not lie with the prime minister, it lies with the Sindh government's incompetence and negligence."

Brandishing copies of new reports highlighting the alleged corruption of the Sindh government, Leader of the Opposition in Sindh Assembly Firdous Shamim Naqvi said that it is painfully clear who is the responsible party in the issue.

"Why is flour being sold for Rs80 across Sindh? Each MNA owns one or two mills. They are all partners [in crime]."

He added that the Sindh government should take steps on an emergency basis to reduce the price of flour to Rs40 within three days.

Sindh CM's response

On the other hand, Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah said on Sunday that the wheat shortage in the province will be brought under control by Tuesday or Wednesday.

In a statement, the CM said: "The Pakistan Agricultural Storage and Services Corporation (Passco) have given 300,000 tonnes of wheat to Sindh which will be brought in from Punjab and Balochistan."

He added that the delay in transporting the wheat had been caused by the transporters' strike.

"At least 70,000 bags of wheat have reached Karachi today. By tomorrow, an additional 50,000 bags will also be delivered."

PTI government playing 'dirty blame game': Ghani

Meanwhile, Sindh Information Minister Saeed Ghani, in response to Awan and Naqvi's statements demanded that the prime minister appear on television and apologise to the nation for the shortage.

He held the premier responsible for the wheat shortage in Sindh as well as the rest of the country.

"Is the Sindh government also responsible for the shortage in Punjab?" he pointed out.

He claimed that wheat from Punjab had been sent to KP and a shortage was intentionally created in Punjab.

"The PTI government is playing a dirty game by blaming Sindh."

Ghani criticised the federal government for being occupied with blaming Sindh while there are queues lined up in Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta of people seeking to obtain wheat.

"The PTI government cannot put up this act for much longer where it blames others to hide its own incompetence," said the minister.

Shehbaz demands inquiry into wheat exports

Shehbaz Sharif, on the other hand, demanded an inquiry into who had authorised export of wheat.

"When there was an internal shortage, why was wheat and flour sent abroad?" he asked.

He demanded that answers be provided to the nation for who was behind this act and at what price was it sold.

"The nation must know who benefitted from having caused such harm to the country."

He asked what had happened to the wheat reserves in the past 16 months and why wheat was exported if the reserves were running low.

According to Shehbaz, while the government was touting 2020 as a year of progress, economic experts are declaring it a year of economic devastation.

"If Imran Khan is unaware, then he is incompetent, and if all is at his behest, then he is the ringleader of corrupt elements,” he said.

A day earlier, PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari had alleged that the federal government had sent 40,000 metric tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan, and thus, intentionally had created a wheat crisis.

Claiming that the government had a lot of wheat that was not being supplied to the people, he alleged that the PM had perhaps created this crisis to benefit his cronies.