• Opposition senator claims flour being ‘smuggled’ to Afghanistan
• Food minister says ample quantity of wheat available

ISLAMABAD: The Senate witnessed a heated debate over wheat shortage on Friday with opposition leaders holding the federal government responsible for the scarcity of the commodity — a charge denied by the federal food minister, who blamed provinces for the steep hike in the price of flour, claiming that ample stocks of wheat were present in the country.

During the Senate session, treasury members alleged that Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — provinces ruled by PTI — caused the floor crisis, which resulted in long queues at utility stores and designated government stalls selling flour.

Senate Opposition Leader Dr Shahzad Wasim, however, took exception to this claim and said the government’s performance was limited to advertisements and foreign tours. Accusing the government of playing havoc with the economy, the PTI leader said the government wanted to run the country in “their old style which was impossible now”.

Speaking during the session, JI Senator Mushtaq Ahmed said the country was facing the worst wheat crisis, particularly in KP. Quoting the statistics of the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, the senator said that the price of a 20kg flour bag was Rs 3,300 and live chicken was being sold at Rs390/kg on January 6.

“I am surprised that enough wheat is available in the silos but who is stealing the flour and chicken [resulting in their shortage]; who is stealing the dollars,” he asked, referring to the increase in the prices of chicken and flour.

He demanded that the federal and provincial governments should inform the nation as to who was responsible for the purported shortage of these commodities.

Senator Ahmad said no action was being taken against hoarders and added that flour was being smuggled to Afghanistan despite fencing and the deployment of the army, paramilitary forces, and police along the border.

“Who is smuggling flour to Afghanistan,” he questioned. According to the senator, “The hoarders and flour smugglers are sitting in parliament” which was the reason flour prices were not being regulated.

ANP Senator Hidayatullah Khan also raised the issue of the flour crisis and the high prices of this commodity in KP. He said that there was a huge difference in the prices of wheat in Punjab and KP even though PTI was the ruling party in both provinces.

In order to ensure the availability of flour, the senator said the government should provide mills with wheat from its stocks. He also pointed out mismanagement at the government-owned Utility Stores Corporation — a matter which was referred to the standing committee concerned by the Senate chairman.

PPP Senator Robina Khalid said that the people of KP were in distress due to the flour crisis. “It is unfortunate that there was a huge difference in prices of the commodity.” She said that the people could “live without gas and electricity, but not without flour”.

The PPP senator said KP was the worst victim of the crisis due to a ban on the interprovincial transport of wheat by the Punjab government. She alleged that PTI was trying to create an artificial crisis only to blame the federal government.

At the end of the sitting, the PTI opposition leader and Senator Bahramand Khan Tungi exchanged hot words after the latter called Imran Khan a “morally, politically, and financially corrupt” person.

‘No crisis’

Meanwhile, National Food Sec­urity Minister Tariq Bashir Cheema said that provinces were responsible for the shortage of the commodity as they were unable to lift stocks from Pakistan Agricultural Storage and Services Corporation (Passco) warehouses.

Addressing a news conference in Islamabad, the minister stated the provinces did not release sufficient stocks to flour mills, causing the crisis. “Why are the provincial governments not releasing stocks even though the federal government is providing them with the required quantity,” the minister said, denying there was any shortage of the commodity in the country.

Sharing statistics, he said the Punjab government released 26,000 metric tons of wheat to the mills in the province on January 10. Instantly, the price of flour fell by Rs800, he claimed.

The Punjab Food Department has lifted only 37 per cent of the quantity allocated by Passco in spite of the fact Punjab had sought wheat from the federal government to meet the flour shortage.

The minister questioned the performance of district food controllers and other officials on the ground. “Provinces have no answer when asked them about reasons behind the insufficient release of wheat stocks,” he claimed and added that “people knew who was responsible for the shortage”.

The minister said Passco was expected to carry forward 1.5 million metric tons of wheat stock this year and added that there would be a surplus stock of wheat at the time of harvest i.e. April.

“If provinces do not lift the stock by April, then the wheat imported on the demand of provinces will be of no use,” he said, adding that “precious foreign exchange” was spent to import the wheat.

Mr Cheema added that the federal government also offered provinces to life wheat stocks from the port as well. He said that the decision to import 2.6 million metric tons of wheat was made after consultation with provinces.

Wheat stocks of 1.3 million metric tons have already arrived in Pakistan, the minister said, adding that 400,000 tons of wheat was lying at the port while 800,000 metric tons will be delivered within a month.

The federal minister stated that after the 18th Amendment, it was the responsibility of the provinces to ensure the availability of essential items in the market as well as control prices, but they have “failed to do so”.

Mr Cheema demanded action against hoarders and smugglers and said the stocks released by the government to the mills were being sold elsewhere at higher rates.

The federal government spent $4.6 billion on the import of edible oil and $2 billion on wheat, he said, asking the provincial governments to elaborate on measures they have taken to increase the cultivation area for edible oil [seeds] and wheat.

Published in Dawn, January 14th, 2023

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