PTI govt to cast dragnet for wheat hoarders

PM Imran orders countrywide ‘grand operation’ in an attempt to tackle wheat crisis

Rizwan Shehzad/Rizwan Ghilzai January 19, 2020
Prime Minister Imran Khan. PHOTO: PTI

ISLAMABAD: The prime minister has ordered a countrywide “grand operation” against wheat hoarders and profiteers after “acute flour shortages” ballooned into a crisis, shooting the prices up by as much as Rs6 per kilo and catching the government off guard.

Alarmed by the sudden upsurge in prices, Imran Khan directed the four provincial chief secretaries to launch a “grand operation” to net wheat hoarders and seal their granaries, according to his office. The top provincial administrators have been directed to initiate operations at the district level.

This is the second time the flour price has gone up as earlier the rates were jacked up by Rs20 per kilo. Though the earlier price upsurge was not unexpected, the current crisis, the government believes, is artificial, created by hoarders in an attempt to mint money.

Interestingly, the prime minister only on Thursday approved a multibillion-rupee package for providing relief to the poor through the Utility Stores Corporation (USC). The Rs7 billion relief package, according to government officials, was in line with the prime minister’s vision of a welfare state modelled on that of Madina.

Under the package, the government plans to lower the prices of kitchen items – including flour, cooking oil, rice and pulses, etc – for the poor segment of society. The prime minister has said that the national economy is on the mend and that 2020 would the year of stabilisation and prosperity.

The government has been subjected to scathing vitriol by the opposition over the flour price hike with the PPP-led Sindh government faulting the Centre for “this tsunami of dearness”, while traders blaming smuggling of the commodity to Afghanistan for the shortages.

However, experts in the Express News show, The Review, made a shocking disclosure that the prices skyrocketed after the government exported 48,000 metric tons of wheat despite a ban on its export.

In the show, the hosts cited statistics of the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) on the export of the staple food during the period of Jul-Oct 2019.

The government allowed export of 693,436 metric tons of wheat worth Rs20.2 billion in 14 months starting from Sept 2018 to Oct 2019. The PBS data also shows that out of that, 48,083 metric tons of wheat was exported despite a ban imposed with effect from July 2019.

The Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) of the Cabinet had placed the ban on wheat export on Jul 17, 2019, yet, according to the PBS, from July to October 2019, 48,083 metric tons of wheat was exported and the exporters earned Rs1.82 billion.

The figures further stated that 645,353 metric tons of wheat was exported for Rs18.5 billion from Sept 2018 to June 2019. The statistics have led people to speculate what was happening to flour prices when wheat was being exported. It has also raised the question if the crisis was deliberately created by the incumbent government.

During the show, when the National Food Security Commissioner Imtiaz Ali Gopang was asked about the ongoing crisis, he said “mismanagement” was the reason behind the issue. Surplus wheat is available in Pakistan but it is not reaching the areas where it is most needed. At one point, he blamed the truckers’ strike for the soaring flour prices in Karachi.

Asked why wheat was being imported when “sufficient quantity” was available at home, Gopang said the provincial governments did not procure wheat from warehouses even after the federal government made extra quantity from its storage available to them.

He said the ECC had set a procurement target of 4 million metric tons of wheat for Punjab but the actual procurement was 3.3 million metric tons, which was 700,000 metric tons – roughly 18% less than the actual target.

Similarly, the ECC had set a procurement target of 300,000 metric tons of wheat for Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa but the actual procurement was 37,000 metric tons only. Sindh and Balochistan, Gopang said, did not procure any wheat.

Moreover, he said, the Pakistan Agricultural Storage and Services Corporation (Passco) allowed the provinces to get wheat from its storage. However, he added, K-P procured 219,000 out of 450,000 tons target and Sindh obtained 116,000 out of 400,000 tons target.

Balochistan did not acquire anything while the Utility Stores Corporation had so far procured 1,000 tons of wheat only. He reiterated that Pakistan had enough wheat and the only reason of the crisis was mismanagement.

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