Shuffling on sugar

Published March 31, 2021

THE belated action initiated by the FIA against some sugar mills and market speculators allegedly involved in the recent manipulation of the sweetener’s retail prices has spawned doubts about the actual intentions of the agency — and the government. The FIA claims to have recovered “humungous” digital and “other” evidence against the owners of certain sugar mills of actively conniving with speculators to rig the market and cheat consumers. In the summons sent to the CFOs and heads of sales of these mills, it also claims to have discovered ‘secret’ bank accounts and involvement in money laundering. But the question is: what is stopping the country’s premier anti-fraud agency from bringing those involved in such criminal activities to justice if it has collected incriminating evidence against them? Instead, their CFOs and sales executives have been summoned for further probe. Apparently, the investigators don’t have enough evidence to get them convicted in courts — or are they trying to put pressure on the industry players, as is being claimed by the sugar mill owners, to reduce their prices? Why else would they waste more time conducting forensic inquiries?

It has been months since a detailed inquiry by a special commission was conducted and its report released with a prime ministerial warning of stern action against sugar mill owners, speculators and others allegedly involved in market manipulation and tax evasion, besides the extortion of subsidies to the tune of billions of rupees from successive governments. Numerous inquiries and actions were announced in light of the report’s recommendations, including measures to overhaul the sugar market and plug the loopholes used by the powerful sugar mafia to fleece the consumers and government alike. Nothing concrete has come out of those inquiries until now and few expect any tangible progress going forward because of the involvement of powerful politicians in the scandal. That is not all. While the government has zealously used the report to malign the opposition, it has taken no action against its own federal and provincial ministers, whose families own the mills that benefited most from export subsidies. The premier recently sacked SAPM Nadeem Babar to ensure a transparent probe into last summer’s petrol shortages in the country. Why is he reluctant to treat the economic affairs minister and his younger brother, who is finance minister in Punjab, in the same way? Politics seems to always trump the larger interest of people in this country.

Published in Dawn, March 31st, 2021

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