An [Artificial] Wheat Shortage Crushes the Masses

Of late, the Economic Coordination Committee, in order to deal with the wheat shortage and price hike of flour in the country, gave approval for importing 0.3 million tonnes of wheat. The first shipment is expected to reach the country from Central Asia by February 15. The committee has also waived-off Rs7.7 billion taxes on wheat import.

Interestingly, while the opposition blames the centre for exporting wheat, which in turn resulted in shortage of flour; the federal government terms it provinces’ fault adding that Sindh particularly could not stop hoarding.

According to Competitive Commission of Pakistan statistics, per capita intake of wheat flour in Pakistan is between 120kg to 126kg, which is one of the highest in the world.

Whatever, the reasons maybe, the price of wheat flour jumped from Rs40 to Rs70 per kg within days. While the government claims that it had given Rs7 billion subsidy package for basic food items in utility stores, it is also a reality that some people were left with no option but to buy half a kg of wheat flour at a time due to decreasing supply and increasing price.

The price of wheat flour had started increasing a while back, even when there was enough wheat stock in the country. The wheat shortage unfolded in a strange manner and the crisis continued to get deep as the blame game continued.

The government certainly needs to put the house in order and asses the oversights.

Very much like the tomato crisis, the big wigs had quite a lot to say about the wheat flour crisis too.

The reports of wheat shortage in the country were rejected by the Ministry of National Food Security and Research.

Federal Minister for Railways Sheikh Rashid said the crisis happened because people eat more bread in November and December.

While the Khyber-Pakhtunkwa Minister for Information Shaukat Yousafzai urged the people not to eat fine flour from Punjab as it causes cancer, Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah blamed the delay in wheat supply on the transporters’ strike.

Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting Firdous Ashiq Awan said a mafia was creating an artificial flour crisis.

Upon asking, President Arif Alvi said he was unaware of any such crisis in the country. While some criticised him for the response, others praised him for being truthful and refraining from giving any senseless statements like others in the government.

The national exchequer had to bear the brunt of the miscalculation and mismanagement.

In 2008, the then government was also facing a similar crisis. The export of wheat in 2007, after over-projection of national harvest, was the reason behind the shortfall. Then, in order to cope with the situation, the government had to import wheat at 70% higher rates from Russia and Australia.

However, it is pertinent to mention that the crisis did not only surface in Pakistan. The harvest of wheat across the world was poor. However, there was some problem in managing and anticipating the crisis. The reports of blame game were there even at that time. The government certainly needs to put the house in order and asses the oversights.

What is really worrisome is that when the prices or supply of basic food items get affected, masses bear the brunt directly. This realisation has to be there in the government circles. Indulging in blame game will not help, trying to get to the root-cause will do. Giving insensitive statements, even on a lighter note, may further aggravate the situation. What need not to be ignored is that country’s staple food comes from wheat flour. Its shortage or price hike, whatever the reason may be, affects each and every person of the country directly.

The policy makers need to ensure high food security and low malnutrition.

On a side, the government now needs to ensure that the prices of other basic commodities like milk and sugar remain in control in the near future. Gas, power, and oil tariffs are already under criticism. Be it political manipulation, negative propaganda, or poor management; the government needs to gear up. The government controls the situation, let’s hope.

Sugar crisis is already surfacing and next in line seems to be milk. The demand and supply seems to be often miscalculated, when it comes to the import and export calculations. This year, the flour shortage resulted because of excessive exports. The same happened in 2007-08. Another similarity is the fact that in both the scenarios, wheat was imported at way higher rates. The national exchequer had to bear the brunt of the miscalculation and mismanagement.

While Pakistan is considered a food surplus country, still at times it faces shortage. This means there is some underlying problem on the management side. The government needs to formulate policies to tackle the issue of food security in the country. Because although the issue of lack of food availability is not very much present in the country, high prices lead to low affordability and hence result in high ratio of malnutrition in the country.

The problems arise when food is available but at higher rates, which a section of society cannot afford.

In 2018, the government announced country’s first national food security policy. Although Pakistani government has been taking steps to address food security in the country, problems are still arising. The population of Pakistan is likely to reach 244 million by 2030. The policy makers need to ensure high food security and low malnutrition. The problems arise when food is available but at higher rates, which a section of society cannot afford. In turn, the food just becomes unavailable to them.

Afsana Afsar

Afsana Afsar

Afsana Afsar is an Associate Editor at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. She also serves as an editor at The Nation.

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