ISLAMABAD, Sept 10: Pakistan is the costliest among three major south Asian countries, including India and Bangladesh, in terms of essential food items, despite being primarily an agriculture economy, according to official statistics.

This is despite the fact that Pakistan had bumper crops, including those of wheat, sugarcane and gram, over the two consecutive years. Food inflation has been a major challenge in Pakistan over the last three years, in some cases, beyond 15 per cent.

Sri Lanka, which is more import-dependant than self-reliant is, however, costlier when compared with India and Pakistan.

Informed sources told Dawn that a meeting of the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) of the cabinet, presided over by Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, was briefed about the situation through an “analysis of regional prices of critical consumer items.

Dr Ashfaq H. Khan, economic adviser to the finance ministry, had announced that Pakistan was cheapest in the region when seen in the context of food inflation.

Minutes of the ECC meeting held on August 29, available with Dawn, however, reveal a totally different picture. Of 31 essential items, the prices of 16 items are higher by 32.7 per cent in Pakistan than India. Prices of the remaining 15 items were higher in India, but with an average margin of 26.2 per cent.

The comparison with prices in Bangladesh was even more deplorable. According to the minutes, the prices of 16 basic food items out of 27 recorded were higher in Pakistan as compared to Bangladesh, with an average margin of 45 per cent.

Prices of the remaining 11 items were lower in Pakistan by a small margin of 21 per cent when compared with basic food items in Bangladesh.The documents suggest that the prices of 20 items out of 25 were lower in Pakistan when compared with Sri Lanka, with an average margin of 30.7 per cent.

Prices of the remaining five items were higher by an average margin of 21.6 per cent.

The only decision the ECC took on this analysis was that the prices of loose edible oil and Irri rice should be compared in future, instead of branded oil and basmati rice.

“The Planning Commission was advised to focus on atta, ghee, sugar, dal chana, tea and rice,” according to the minutes of the meeting.Reviewing the trend of change in prices, the ECC noted that average consumer prices of 22 items had increased (during the week ending Aug 23). The prices of seven items have decreased, while those of 24 items have remained unchanged.

And despite an increase in prices of many items, the sensitive price index in the case of combined income group for 53 essential items covering 17 urban centres, increased by 0.29 per cent over the previous week.The ECC was also briefed about the recommendations of the inter-ministerial committee on core food inflation, but the prime minister had directed that the matter be placed before the next ECC meeting. The meeting was informed that timing of a policy measure was crucial to address core food inflation problems, the sources said.