Spiralling flour crisis

Published January 10, 2023

THE current flour crisis has been looming on the horizon for several months. Concerns were being expressed ever since the last domestic wheat harvest fell far short of expectations as well as the country’s consumption requirements.

The catastrophic summer floods exacerbated the situation as the wheat stocks in the flood-hit areas were badly damaged. Balochistan on Saturday said the province was left with just enough wheat inventory to last it another few days as its food minister issued an emergency call for immediate help.

The situation in the other provinces isn’t very different as far as the common people are concerned. In Sindh’s Mirpurkhas district, the death of a man in a stampede that broke out among a large crowd of poor people that had gathered to buy subsidised flour is indicative of the shape of things to come.

Punjab and Sindh are not allowing their wheat and flour to cross their borders as alleged by Balochistan. Flour millers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have also complained of less wheat supplies from Punjab which grows over 70pc of the nation’s wheat. The federal government is also blaming the provinces, especially Punjab, for the crisis.

The Minister for National Food Security and Research, Mr Tariq Bashir Cheema, had last week claimed there was no shortage of wheat as all the provinces had sufficient stocks but were not releasing the grain (to the flour mills). Punjab has since increased the wheat quota of flour mills from its stocks to ease shortages in the province.

The increased supply of subsidised wheat to the mills should help ease flour shortages in Punjab. But the issue is that the other provinces aren’t left with sufficient stocks to last them through to the next harvest. Consequently, low-middle-income consumers are faced with a double whammy as the shortages are leading to a daily spike in flour prices in most parts of the country.

The market rate of flour is nearly more than double the official, subsidised price as the flour mills are buying wheat from the open market at much higher than the government price. Many mills aren’t operating at their full grinding capacity which is also adding to the shortages and in turn inflating the flour prices. With food inflation averaging around 31pc since June, it is hard not to expect people to desperately look for subsidised flour to feed their families.

Watching the federal government and the provinces trade accusations at this time when most middle-class households are struggling to survive is abhorrent. The inability of the federal and provincial authorities to provide relief to the inflation-stricken people speaks volumes about their competence. While the federal government should be faulted for its failure to foresee the crisis, the provinces must be held responsible for their failure to take timely administrative actions to control profit-rigging within their jurisdictions.

Published in Dawn, January 10th, 2023

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