ISLAMABAD: The government on Monday faced scathing criticism from the opposition in the upper house of parliament over the wheat crisis, forcing Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani to refer the matter to a house committee with the directive to seek details from all provincial chief secretaries on a daily basis and present a report to the house.

Announcing that the debate on the issue would also continue on Tuesday, the Senate chairman directed Minister for National Food Security Khusro Bakhtiar to be present in the house to respond to the points raised by the members.

Despite the chair’s directives, the opposition members, however, staged a token walkout from the house to register their protest over the rise in flour prices across the country due to the shortage of wheat and the absence of the minister from the proceedings.

A number of opposition members, mostly belonging to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), alleged that the nation was facing the crisis because of the “mafias” sitting with the rulers and the government’s decision to first allow “an individual” to export wheat and then to allow “the same person” to import it after the country was hit by its shortage.

PML-N says ‘an individual’ exported wheat and then ‘the same person’ has been allowed to import it

“The profit has been earned by the person whose aircraft you (PM Imran Khan) use for travelling. The profit has been earned by the person who runs your kitchen,” said Pervez Rasheed of the PML-N in an apparent reference to Jahangir Tareen, former secretary general of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI).

The PML-N leader regretted that wheat was exported at the rate of Rs29 per kg while it was being sold for Rs70 per kg in the country. He said the federal government was complaining that it was given wrong information by the provinces whereas the PTI itself was ruling in two provinces.

As many as six opposition members, belonging to the PML-N, Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, took part in the debate on the wheat crisis and poor economic conditions in the country, but not a single member of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) spoke on the matter.

PPP’s Raza Rabbani and Sherry Rehman took the floor but they spoke on the recent news conference of Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and on the issue of honour killings, respectively.

Muzaffar Hussain Shah of the PML-Functional, which is an ally of the ruling PTI, expressed concern over the wheat shortage and supported the opposition’s demand for an inquiry to identify those responsible for the crisis.

Mr Shah, who is also the chairman of the Senate Committee on National Food Security, asked the chairman to refer the matter to his committee so that it could hold an investigation and fix responsibility for it. He expressed surprise over the wheat shortage, saying that recently the government had informed the committee that it wanted to export the surplus wheat.

“When wheat was in surplus, then why today there is a shortage?” he asked.

Mohsin Aziz of the ruling PTI, while taking part in the debate, admitted that the people were facing difficulties due to wheat shortage and said the government had already declared that the crisis would be over in the next couple of days.

“We admit it but there is a need to find out the reasons,” he said, adding that mainly it was the responsibility of the provinces to maintain the stocks to avoid its shortage. He also said it was not for the first time that the country was facing such a crisis. In the past, he claimed, the crisis prevailed for even months.

He said one reason for the flour crisis was the wrong data provided by the provincial governments and disruption of wheat supply due to the strike of transporters.

Opposition leader and PML-N chairman Raja Zafarul Haq regretted that the people who were already reeling from hike in electricity and gas tariff, were now being forced to buy flour for Rs70 per kg.

Another PML-N member Javed Abbasi said there were reports before time that there could be a wheat crisis in the country, but the government remained unmoved. He said the “anti-people government” sacked its health minister over unprecedented increase in the prices of medicines, but did not disclose the names of those who earned billions. He said that Sindh and Balochistan claimed that they had informed the Centre that they were running out of stock.

Parliamentary Affairs Minister Azam Swati informed the Senate that Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi would take the house into confidence about his recent visit to the US after Raza Rabbani criticised the minister’s news conference in Washington.

Published in Dawn, January 21st, 2020