Wheat and sugar investigations

Updated April 07, 2020

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PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan is to be commended for keeping his word and releasing the findings of two investigations into the recent sugar and wheat flour shortages that led to an increase in the price of these items. The reports were made public without delay or alterations, even though they incriminate people close to the prime minister — something unheard of in previous dispensations.

And yet, the ensuing shakeup in government ranks has raised several questions. For instance, a number of ministers, advisers and bureaucrats linked with the damning probe have been given other portfolios — was this reshuffle essentially a face-saving exercise? Indeed, any action at this stage is a little premature.

The reports expectedly spawned demands from the opposition for immediate action against those believed to have benefited from the shortages and price hikes. In response, the premier rightly advised them to wait for the completion of the forensic audit of the scams.

In a series of tweets on Sunday, he said he was waiting for a detailed forensic report on the matter before taking action against anyone. A high-powered commission is expected to finalise the audit by April 25. He also said that “after these reports come out no powerful lobby would be able to profiteer at the expense of our public”.

A careful reading of the two inquiries underlines the need for patience as these reports — especially the one on the steep increase in the price of domestic sugar prices last year — while pointing to certain beneficiaries of government policies and decisions, do not fix responsibility. All this has only added to the mystery of the reshuffle.

On their own, the two reports do not contain anything new or startling. Most of the information contained in them has been extensively reported by the print and electronic media over the past few months. But what the reports do confirm is the deep connection between politics and the sugar and wheat trade as a whole.

The investigators appear reluctant to pin direct blame on the politicians and officials linked to the ruling party for fear of influencing the federal and provincial policies on sugar and wheat. And yet it is hard to dispute that those in the political corridors of powers have benefited from these policies.

A look at the report shows that it is not only sugar mill owners linked to the government who are beneficiaries of the billions doled out in the name of export subsidies, but also those associated with the PML-N and other parties. Governments need to break this nexus between politics and the sugar and wheat trade through extensive policy reforms if such crises are to be prevented in the future. That will mean a substantial reduction in the government’s own role in the sugar and wheat trade and greater reliance on market forces.

Published in Dawn, April 7th, 2020