Wheat flour crisis

Updated January 21, 2020

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THE current crisis had been in the making for quite some time. Wheat flour shortages were looming large as the gaps appeared obvious. There were clear signs that warned of disruptions to supply in several parts of the country; once the projections proved correct, the increase in the price of wheat flour was inevitable.

Yet, the authorities concerned remained silent, showing little inclination to take steps to protect the consumers from the rising cost of the staple food. Reports of growing shortages in major cities were dismissed nonchalantly by the very people who were supposed to take action to remedy the situation. No surprise then that a full-blown crisis has gripped the entire country.

The government woke up at the prodding of the media which showed images of people queuing up outside shops to buy wheat flour at exorbitant rates. Since then, we’ve been told that wheat in large quantities was being released from the federal stocks and urgently dispatched to Sindh, KP and Balochistan — the areas that officials say face an acute shortage. The Economic Coordination Committee has also allowed the import of 0.3m tonnes of grain by the end of March to cover the shortages and manage market sentiments until the next harvest.

A debate has ensued on the reasons that might have led to the crisis. The government and the opposition blame each other, while the consumers continue to suffer as a consequence of poor governance. In fact, no single factor or actor can be blamed entirely for the crisis, which originated in Sindh and spilled over to the rest of the country.

The Sindh government didn’t procure wheat during the last harvest. It says it did not lift wheat stocks because of a cash crunch resulting from the centre’s failure to release funds. But that is not quite the explanation to satisfy an earnest inquiry.

Similarly, Punjab needs to come up with plausible reasons for its own inaction against the hoarders said to be responsible for hiking grain prices in the market. The abrupt restrictions it imposed on the inter-provincial movement of wheat and its products had also halted supply to KP and elsewhere.

Above all, the federal government cannot absolve itself of blame. Its decision to allow excessive wheat exports in summer despite the lower-than-targeted harvest has forced it to import wheat to cover the shortages for the next two months.

Unchecked smuggling of wheat flour across the porous borders with Afghanistan, and major supply disruptions caused by weather conditions and a strike by goods’ transporters played their part in complicating matters. More importantly, it is poor management and lack of coordination among different tiers of government that led the crisis to overwhelm the poor to low-income population groups, who are already struggling to cope with the rising cost of food. It is they who are suffering the consequences of the rulers’ indifference.

Published in Dawn, January 21st, 2020