LAHORE, June 22: Confirming that tenders for the import of wheat would be called within next ten days, official sources have debunked reports of import of wheat from India to meet domestic needs.

Flour millers have been quoted as saying that they were making arrangements for import of wheat from India to bridge the shortage gap. The millers said about 5,000 tons of wheat could be immediately imported from Indian Punjab at Pakistan's official rate of Rs350 per 40 kg.

Growers, contacted by Dawn, described reports based on claims aimed at bringing down the rate of wheat in the market. The official rate comes to about Rs358 per 40 kg while this quantity is being sold in the market at Rs370 to Rs375. In any case, officials said, millers have nothing to do with import of wheat.

Official sources ruled out any wheat import from India because of another reason. The country is known as the home of Kurnal Bunt, the fungus that led to the rejection of wheat from Australia earlier this year. Laboratory tests in Pakistan had declared Australian wheat as afflicted by Kurnal Bunt.

That, however, was not the only issue. It recently kicked up new dust as Australia cited the purchase of the same shipments by three countries as evidence to the fact that its wheat's quality was better.

This controversial backdrop has in fact made the authorities to be extra careful for wheat imports and was the reason behind the Commerce Ministry's rejection of specifications of the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock (Minfal) for wheat imports, asking it to elaborate procedures for testing the quality of imports and identifying laboratories where the commodity would be examined.

Officials say that the issue has been sorted out and specifications finalized to ensure that wheat is available to the people at the right time. The government obviously does not wish to be caught in a politically explosive wheat-shortage situation.

However, the quantity to be imported is not yet clear and officials are either unwilling to disclose it or a final decision has not been taken. The problem possibly lies in the official count of the crop.

Minfal places the produce at 19.7 million tons. Considering that the domestic requirement is 19m tons, imports should be almost not needed. Either that or crop size has been inaccurately assessed and the correct position has not been taken.

Minfal had projected a crop of about 20.1m tons and 19.7m is not too far below that yield. However, this figure starts looking unrealistic and excessively optimistic if the Finance Minister's views, as expressed in the Economic Survey, are to be believed.

A growth rate of 2.6 per cent suggests a crop lower than its officially assessed size. Another aspect of wheat imports is the high bill Pakistan would be required to pay.

The government raised the official price of wheat this year to Rs350 per bag of 40 kg but it was kept to Rs300 for three years. If the farmers were offered the right incentives during this period, they are likely to have produced sufficient wheat for domestic needs.

Even for the last crop, the upward revision of the price was made rather late. That virtually disallowed a positive collective response by the agriculture sector. Moreover, marketing is oriented towards fleecing farmers. These factors have combined to restrict the crop size.

As a result, Pakistan would not pay about $230 million for one million tons of wheat while at the rate of about Rs400 per 40 kg the bill would have not only been substantially lower but the payment would have been in rupee instead of US dollar.

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