HYDERABAD: Acknowledging wheat farmers’ grievances about corruption, Sindh food minister Gianchand Esrani claimed that he had suspended two food officials and 15 food inspectors while initiating an inquiry into the matter.
As complaints against the government rose, the minister embarked upon a provincial visit to take stock of the situation.
“We assure the farmers that action will be taken against food officials and the middlemen,” he said at a press conference in Hyderabad on Friday, following a meeting with the food officials from Hyderabad and Mirpurkhas divisions.
The Sindh government had announced that 24 million bags of 100 kilogrammes (kg) and 48 million bags of 50kg would be distributed free from March 1. The farmers, however, complain that the process has still not started in several districts. Others even allege that the food officials are taking bribes for the bags despite the government subsidy under which they are supposed to be handed over for free.
The provincial government set the wheat procurement target to nine million tons in 2015 - down from 12 million tons in 2014 - at the rate of Rs1,300 per maund. The officially estimated wheat production in Sindh grew from four million tons last year to five million tons.
“The government is supposed to buy up to 25 per cent of the province’s harvested wheat crop from the farmers,” said the minister. “But this year, due to the existing unutilised stock of around seven million tons, we reduced the target.”
The farmers sell more than half of their produce in the open market, storing the rest as grain for cultivation in the next season. According to Esrani, around 50 per cent of the procurement target for lower Sindh and 25 per cent for upper Sindh has been met.
As the provincial government’s wheat procurement debt accrued to Rs82.25 billion this year, it also faces the dilemma of disposing of its stockpile. With seven million tons from the 2014 harvest already present in its silos and the addition of nine million more tons, the government is confronted with the challenge of stock utilisation and storage.
“Our storage capacity is between six to 6.5 million tons. The remaining stock is kept in rented warehouses and open spaces, exposing it to the risk of damage,” admitted the minister.
According to him, the government will be able to sell 10 million tons from its stock at most. “We will try to convince Pakistan Agriculture Storage and Service Corporation to buy four million tons.”
Esrani said that they expected to earn around Rs13 billion by selling the procured wheat to the mills. That amount, he added, would be spent to pay back the loan.
He blamed the federal government for causing the province’s wheat crisis by allowing the import of seven million tons of low-quality wheat from Ukraine last year and selling it only in Sindh, where the official stocks lay unsold. “A majority of that wheat was sold to the flour mills in Karachi, who mixed it with the local crop,” the minister said. “We expected the federal government to make a parity-based policy for equal distribution of the imported wheat, but they foisted all of it on us.”
Published in The Express Tribune, April 11th, 2015.