Shouting down prices

Updated 29 Oct 2020


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

BY all reported accounts, Tuesday’s cabinet meeting seems to have been a raucous affair. Cabinet members chided their own colleagues for the continuing spiral in food prices, while those in the crosshairs of the criticism blamed the rains, the Sindh government and the lethargic pace at which the bureaucracy moved on the crisis.

According to reports coming out of the cabinet session, Prime Minister Imran Khan was upset that his directives from April to begin imports of wheat were not followed up on. Let’s note two things about this observation. First, those directives were issued more than six months ago. And the prime minister is asking after their non-implementation now? Second, along with those directives there was a commitment to take action against those who profited from the food price increase last year.

These were his exact words: “I await the detailed forensic reports now by the high-powered commission, which will come out on 25 April, before taking action. InshaAllah, after these reports come out no powerful lobby will be able to profiteer at the expense of our public.” This was on the morning of April 5, 2020. A full 205 days lie between that date and the date of the cabinet meeting, in which he once again vowed to bring prices down again.

What action have we seen on the inquiry commission reports released in April, besides a small cabinet reshuffle and suspension of one provincial bureaucrat? While the prime minister is busy asking why his directives issued 205 days ago were not implemented, the rest of us can ask what happened to his own promise of action against those named in the report.

We had a vow of action not once but twice — action against those responsible for the price spiral. And yet, here we are again…

When we had a food price spiral in the same months last year we were told inquiries had been launched and “no powerful lobby will be able to profiteer at the expense of our public” again. Then the same mistakes that led to last year’s price spiral were repeated one more time this year. And here we are once again, in the midst of another food price spiral, owing to the same causes as last year’s, but with price increases that are even more fierce than they were at that time.

It doesn’t end there. Back in February of this year, the prime minister vowed that “come what may, my govt will be announcing various measures that will be taken to reduce prices of basic food items for the common man in Cabinet on Tuesday.” That cabinet meeting was held on Feb 11, a full 259 days before Tuesday’s cabinet meeting. And the “come what may” vow was followed up with this: “The nation should rest assured that all those responsible will be held accountable & penalised.”

So we had a vow of action not once but twice — action against those responsible for the price spiral, as well as action to bring the prices under control. And yet here we are again, 259 days later, riding the same price spiral, listening to the same blame game, seeing the same fist-thumping one more time.

On Oct 10, a little more than a fortnight ago, while the price spiral continued, Hammad Azhar who as minister industries is responsible for the sugar sector, told us that “South Asia has witnessed a temporary food inflation spike.” The words were accompanied with a graph, with two lines on it, one blue (for India) and one black (for Pakistan) saying this is the food inflation in both countries. There was no source given for where the data came from, but both lines seemed to track each other closely. The implication clearly was that rising food prices are a global phenomenon. He went on to repeat the vow that government would do what it could to arrest this price spiral.

“Govt will take all measures needed to reduce prices of essential commodities [sic]. Imported wheat and sugar will be released at control rates by provinces. All options are being examined for other commodities.”

Four days later, he followed this up with another observation, and repeated the vow of action. “International food prices have risen post covid supply disruptions,” he said and attached a graph, this time with the source given as Bloomberg, showing the price of agri futures contracts rising from June onwards.

Sceptics at the time pointed out two things. First that he was showing figures for future deliveries, and second that the peak of 2020 was below the peak of 2019, which meant prices from last year had actually come down slightly in the very markets the graph was depicting. But be that as it may, he followed up this observation by vowing that “federal and provincial governments will take administrative and fiscal measures to stabilise prices of essential commodities”. This was on Oct 14, about a fortnight ago.

Then yesterday he told us that “TCP has imported sugar at most competitive rates from intl markets without any govt subsidy involved. It will also be sold in the market by Punjab Govt at prices much below the current retail and ex-mill rates.”

So if international prices were rising and driving the food price spiral in the country, how did the TCP manage to import sugar which can be sold “below the current retail and ex-mill rates”? And without “any govt subsidy involved”?

Fact of the matter is, if you look up all the public pronouncements issued by various ministers of this government since August, by when it was abundantly clear that wheat procurement had missed its target, that shortages were looming, and the price spiral had taken off in earnest, you will notice something. One day they’re blaming the opposition. In their next press conference they’re blaming the weather, untimely rains, locusts, international prices and so on. Along with this they’re vowing action, taking notice, unleashing the Tiger Force, warning profiteers and so on.

One thing they are not doing is learning how to run things.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, October 29th, 2020