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Jun 06, 2020 PRINT EDITION

This is no time for a wheat crisis

While any attempt to check hoarding, particularly of staple food such as wheat, ought to be wholeheartedly welcomed and examples should indeed be made out of people indulging in such crimes, there is still the need to let the law take the lead and any arb

May 23, 2020

While any attempt to check hoarding, particularly of staple food such as wheat, ought to be wholeheartedly welcomed and examples should indeed be made out of people indulging in such crimes, there is still the need to let the law take the lead and any arbitrary measures on the part of government officials should be strictly avoided. That is why one would have gladly welcomed the ongoing action against wheat millers in Punjab as a necessary official crackdown on corruption, hoarding, etc. But since from the looks of things the food department has been sealing mills, arresting owners and diverting wheat supplies pretty much on its own, people are naturally left wondering if this is another one of those episodes when the provincial machinery acts first and works on the legal cover later. The situation is made all the worse because private millers feel wronged and the Pakistan Flour Mills Association (PFMA) began a complete shutdown strike in Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan on Monday for an indefinite period. And, not surprisingly, all this unsavoury business is raising all sorts of questions about inadequate wheat supply and out of control prices in the near future. And even as all this goes on all that could be heard from the government was that it is striking down on hoarding like never before and all is, as always, very well. However, better sense seems to have prevailed and the millers have been assured that their concerns would be addressed and in return they have, for the time being at least, decided to end their shutdown.
The millers told a very different story, no doubt, and invite anybody who is willing to come to see for themselves if sealed mills gave any impression or evidence of hoarding, as the government kept claiming. Also, even if authorities were acting on more than a mere hunch, wouldn't it have been better to proceed after obtaining all necessary legal authority, especially when they shut down mills, hijacked wheat-filled private vehicles to offload at government centres, and even picked up people? Now, private buyers are not allowed to buy wheat from the open market - a straight forward and legal market transaction - just because the food department says so. Yet even if they were right to do what they did, shouldn't they have done it in a less controversial manner? Let's not forget that these factors have a direct bearing on the market. And sometimes authorities think they are well within their bounds when they are twisting arms and throwing their weight around, but then find out that their tough approach also rattled the market for no reason. What message did they really think they were sending when they agreed to sit down and sort out issues with PFMA, but still proceeded to seal flour mills in Multan? The strike created panic in the market, with the price sure to rise around and after Eid. It did begin to rise by about Rs20 for a 20kg bag, which soared to Rs825. And going forward, as demand and supply forces will tell you, it may have gone up by another Rs20-40/20kg bag if the private sector is kept from away from the open market.
Surely it's not too much to expect the food department to know that wheat is the country's staple food. And there's no way any hiccup in its supply chain can be allowed or tolerated even in the best of times. And these are far from ideal times. The Covid-19 pandemic has not just reduced people's ability to afford even the most necessary things like food, but it's also made it harder than ever for governments to ensure adequate food supplies in the medium to long-terms. It is because of precisely such constraints that various UN (United Nations) organisations are warning of serious famines, of "biblical proportions" according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), in the worst case scenario. Pakistan's wheat crop has already been battered by bad weather and an unprecedented attack by swarms of locusts. To put any more pressure on supply or price of wheat, especially without warning, proper reason, or compensation, amounts to putting more stress on middle and lower income groups than they can handle at this point in time. The Punjab government should have stepped in much earlier with all its weight when it saw how allegedly arbitrary arrests and shutting down of flour mills was driving some of their owners into a corner and some sort of resistance, usually a strike till they are heard, was on the cards. It is primarily the responsibility of the government to ensure that there are no interruptions in the food supply chain.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020