Govt sees end to wheat flour crisis soon amid strike threat in KP

Updated 20 Jan 2020

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LAHORE: People stand in a queue to buy wheat flour sacks from a flour mill’s truck on Sunday.—Online
LAHORE: People stand in a queue to buy wheat flour sacks from a flour mill’s truck on Sunday.—Online

LAHORE: As the masses continued to struggle to get wheat flour at official rates, the federal minister for food security on Sunday announced that the crisis would be over soon and prices would normalise by Tuesday.

The announcement came a day before the nanbais across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are set to go on a strike in protest against the shortage of supply along with government measures to keep the prices of roti unchanged.

The staple food item price has registered an increase of Rs25 per kilogram in recent days, as the opposition demands a probe into the ‘artificial’ crisis.

Addressing a press conference in Islamabad on Sunday, Minister for National Food Security and Research Makhdoom Khusro Bakh­tiar held a ban by the Punjab government on inter-provincial movement and the continued strike of transporters in Karachi as the reasons behind the flour shortage in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh.

Shahbaz seeks probe into wheat export

He said both the transport strike and the ban on wheat movement that had affected the demand and supply in local markets had been ‘addressed’ and the supply of grains restored. He expressed the hope that flour price would normalise by Tuesday.

Mr Bakhtiar claimed that sufficient wheat stocks were available in the country to fulfil domestic requirements and expressed firm resolve to take strict action against those involved in hoarding, profiteering or creating ‘artificial’ crisis of the commodity in domestic markets.

Special adviser to the prime minister on information Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan accused the PPP-led Sindh government of not lifting its allocated wheat share in time from Passco, the federal wheat procurement body, leading to the crisis in the province.

Talking to the media in Sialkot, Dr Awan criticised the Sindh government for “miserably failing” in managing the demand and supply gap in the province for controlling flour crisis, and in the same breath alleged that a mafia was creating artificial shortage of wheat and flour by making [heavy] purchases in the local markets in a bid to earn more as well as launder their black money.

She said the federal government was breaking the nexus of this mafia to rid the people of artificial flour crisis.

She said the Sindh government failed in ensuring the smooth and early provision of wheat to the flour mills in the province besides showing negligence in timely wheat procurement.

Countering the allegations levelled by the federal cabinet members, Sindh Agriculture Minister Ismail Rahu asked if they also believed the Sindh government was responsible for the flour crisis in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where their party (Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf) was in power.

Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah said they had procured 300,000 tonnes of wheat from Passco out which 70,000 bags had been hauled to Karachi from Punjab and Balochistan.

In a statement, CM Shah said his government had hired the services of National Logistics Cell (NLC) to lift the wheat from Passco godowns in other provinces to Karachi and Hyderabad in the wake of private goods transporters’ strike.

Mr Rahu explained that as the federation had blocked Sindh’s Rs150 billion share [in the federal divisible pool], making it difficult for the provincial government to procure additional wheat, while goods transport strike kept suspended supplies to flour mills. He expressed the hope that the retail flour rate of Rs45 per kg would be restored by Wednesday.

Balochistan, where the price of the staple food has surged in recent weeks from Rs43 to Rs65 per kilo, is also facing an impending flour crisis, as the government ordered a crackdown against some flour mills and hoarders.

The provincial food minister, Sardar Abdul Rahman Khethran, claimed that smuggling of wheat from the province to Afghanistan had been checked. He said the new supplies of 50,000-tonne wheat from the federal government would take 10 days to reach the market.

He said damage caused by heavy rains and flood to wheat stocks in godowns was another reason behind the grain shortage.

Rejecting the criticism against his government, Mr Khethran said the flour crisis was hurting the entire country.

Questioning the export of wheat and flour in the last quarter of 2019 when Pakistan was facing shortage of the commodity, Opposition Leader in the National Assembly Shahbaz Sharif demanded a probe into the ‘scam’.

“When there was shortage of wheat and flour in the country, then who ordered export and at what rate? The nation must know who benefited from the loss of the country?” he questioned in a statement issued from London.

“We have to point out reasons behind the destruction of each and every sector during the past 16 month [rule of the PTI]?”

Meanwhile, the Nanbai Association Peshawar announced a province-wide shutdown from Monday (today) as the administration declined to raise roti price.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa minister Shaukat Yousufzai told Dawn that following the complaints about restrictions on supply of wheat flour from Punjab to KP, the government took action and got the ban lifted.

“Now the flour is available in abundance and there is no justification for increasing the roti price.”

Haji Mohammad Iqbal and Khaista Gul, representing the nanbai association, said Peshawar commissioner had asked them in a meeting to postpone the strike for a week, but they had to decline as they could no longer run their businesses with certain conditions. They said the price of 85-kg flour had shot up from Rs4,100 to Rs5,100, whereas they were being forced to keep the weight and price of the roti unchanged.

To check profiteering and hoarding, Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar dashed to Jaranwala and suspended an assistant food controller of the food department and a station house officer there. He also suspended Sahiwal district food controller for failing to check hoarding and to ensure smooth wheat supply to the flour mills and chakkis.

Ali Hazrat Bacha from Peshawar, Abid Mehdi from Sialkot and Saleem Shahid from Quetta also contributed to this report

Published in Dawn, January 20th, 2020