LAHORE: Sugar and wheat flour have gone missing from the shelves of the most of retail shops in the provincial metropolis as the government is focusing on maintaining supplies to its Sasta Ramazan bazaars.
Retailers say that they were having intermittent and limited wheat flour supplies for the last four weeks before Ramazan but the supplies totally dried up at the advent of the month of fasting.
“My repeated visits to the wholesaler are failing to get flour for my shop as he says that flour mills have cut their supplies without assigning any reason,” bemoans Muhammad Ajmal, a retailer at the Ghaziabad neighbourhood.
Claiming that the people from up to Jallo Mor and Manawan on the GT Road are visiting his shop to get flour, he says he is unable to meet requirements of even his regular customers with whom he had made a commitment that the commodity would be available during Ramazan.
Govt focusing supplies of both commodities to Ramazan bazaars
Though packed flour (chakki atta) is available at many retail shops, it is unaffordable for the low-income groups as it is sold for Rs80 per kg (a 5kg bag costing Rs400) where the white flour from the mills is being marketed at a subsidised rate of Rs37.5 per kg or at Rs375 per 10kg bag.
Awais Ali, a consumer, says each person may get a maximum of two bags of 10kg packed in green colored sacks as an identity mark that the commodity is subsidized.
Long queues of customers are seen at Ramazan bazaars waiting for subsidised flour and sugar. The sweetener is available but only one kg per customer.
Punjab Agriculture Minister Syed Hussain Jehanian Gardezi, who visited some of the facilities in Lahore on Thursday, interprets the phenomenon as evidence that the masses are getting quality commodities and that also at cheaper rates from the Ramazan bazaar outlets.
Flour millers accuse the food department of reducing wheat quota of the units located in and around Lahore by 30pc. This has led to a shortage of 60,000 bags of 20kg in the area, explains Pakistan Flour Mills Association leader Asim Raza.
The Punjab Industries Department, however, claims that so far 1.53m 10kg bags have been provided at the Sasta Ramazan Bazaars since their establishment across the province a couple of days ago.
Mukhtar Ahmed, a Township retail shop owner, says sugar is available but he is not offering it for sale for it is costlier than the official rates.
He says the government wants the retailers to sell the sweetener at Rs85 per kg while they themselves are purchasing a 50kg bag from the wholesale market at Rs6,500 (Rs130 per kg) so how can they sell the commodity at a loss of Rs45 per kg.
To avoid fines and arrests by the district administration, he says, he, like most of the other retailers, has decided to remove sugar from shelves.
The Pakistan Sugar Mills Association (Punjab Zone) alleges that they and traders are facing harassment in Punjab leading to disruption of the supply line of sugar in the province.
In a press release, the association says that the ex-mill price of Rs80 per kg is too low and the sugar mills are facing losses.
It claims that no buyers are coming forward to lift the commodity from their stocks for the last two months, which is resulting in liquidity crunch for the millers who have to clear growers’ dues and banks and government’s liabilities.
It requests Chief Minister Sardar Usman Buzdar to intervene and set the sugar price in accordance with Rs105 per kg cost of production of the sweetener to save the industry from bankruptcy.
Responding to the PSMA assertions, Cane Commissioner Muhammad Zaman Wattoo terms the allegations utterly baseless, contrary to the facts.
“No harassment of any kind of sugar mills or the traders is being made in Punjab as the government is lifting only 150,000 tonne sugar from the millers as per Lahore High Court’s order to sell it at a subsidised rate of Rs65 per kg at Ramazan bazaars.”
Mr Wattoo says that on reports of speculative trade and artificially jacking up prices of sugar above Rs110 per kg in Ramazan, the FIA acted against the speculators and very compelling incriminating evidence was captured during this scoop.
The speculators had been evading hefty amounts of tax in addition to jacking up prices, he claims in a press release.
Keeping in view the massive tax evasion due to sugar sale to unregistered brokers, dealers and benamidars, the Punjab government promulgated the Punjab Sugar (Supply Chain Management) Order 2021 and the Punjab Prevention of Speculation in Essential Commodities Ordinance, 2021, which make it mandatory to sell sugar only to registered brokers and dealers. This documentation of the sugar industry cannot be termed as harassment, the cane commissioner argues.
He says that ‘law-abiding’ traders have started registering themselves and so far more than 1,000 brokers and dealers have been registered in the province.
The assertion that the sugar mills are facing losses due to the ex-mill price of Rs80 per kg is also fallacious, Mr Wattoo claims.
“The sugar mills themselves filed an average sale price of sugar of Rs67 with the tax authorities. If sales tax is added to this sale price, the ex-mill price comes to Rs78.39 per kg,” he says, adding the ex-mill price of Rs80 per kg has been calculated using the data provided by the millers themselves.
Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2021