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EDITORIAL: The federal government seems to have learnt at least one lesson from last year’s wheat fiasco and not delayed the announcement of the minimum support price (MSP) till the very last moment this time, reducing the risk of farmers opting for other crops for no other reason than uncertainty about how much they will ultimately get for their wheat. That explains, to an extent, the additional million tons of production forecast for the upcoming season. Yet while increasing the support price from Rs 1,650 per 40kg to Rs 1,800 per 40kg, at the prime minister’s personal insistence, would have made some farmers feel more comfortable, some of the old problems will remain because of the Sindh government’s announcement of Rs 2,000 per 40kg as the support price in the province. That of course leaves the door open for plenty of market manipulation and cross-border arbitrage that only benefits corporations and middlemen at the cost of the farmers as well as end-consumers.

That is why the Sindh government’s step is increasingly being seen as a political manoeuvre to put pressure on the federal government rather than any genuine initiative to facilitate farmers. Already, there are reports from the province of retailers pushing wheat flour prices up to Rs 5,000 per 100kg bag after the announcement of wheat procurement price of Rs 2,000 per 40kg. Last year, when the support price was Rs 1,400 per 40kg, a 100kg bag of wheat flour went for Rs 4,100, so signs of price distortions have already started to appear. So far the federal government has not blinked and how this turns out remains to be seen. But it’s not as if Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is not aware of the need to soothe sentiments in this regard. At the press conference to announce and explain the support price, National Food Security Minister Syed Fakhar Imam and Punjab Food Minister Aleem Khan went the extra mile to ensure that the decision was taken both in line with international prices and to protect local farmers; and that the common man, who depends on wheat for his staple diet, will remain completely unaffected by the increase in prices.

For now they’ll say that the price disruption in Sindh is not their business and all questions should be put to the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in power over there, but if a uniform price is not ensured in all provinces then sooner or later it will create problems that the federal, not the Sindh, government will have to solve. Just last week, when there were three different official wheat purchasing prices since the central government hadn’t changed its price from Rs 1,650 to Rs 1,800 per 40kg, the Pakistan Business Forum (PBF) implored the government to work on a unified agriculture policy that would not just set one support price across the country but also tackle input costs and the burden on the national exchequer that comes with unforeseen imports of important commodities just like wheat.

The government seems to be doing what it can to avoid a repeat of the wheat crisis that hit the market last year. The Punjab food minister stressed that keeping flour prices regulated, to prevent any sudden price increase, was the government’s priority and the prime minister himself was overseeing the entire exercise. This is important not just for the welfare of the farmers and consumers, but also the survival of the government. It has already come under fire for high food prices as well as its inability to do much about them. And it is the common man, at the end of the day, that has suffered the most from all this. If the government is still not able to protect the food basket of the vast majority of the people, and appears helpless in controlling the price of something as essential as wheat, then it will certainly suffer when its candidates will be all out on the hustings.

It is already a monumental tragedy that the country has been reduced to a position where it has to regularly import some, if not much, of its wheat. And it isn’t short of a shame that an effective solution escapes us not for economic or financial reasons but because of political differences between parties running the centre and provinces. The head of the National Assembly standing committee on commerce, Syed Naveed Qamar, was right to point out recently that when we import our wheat at the last moment at very high prices we actually end up helping farmers of other countries instead of subsidising our own bunch. Clearly, this situation cannot go on indefinitely. Therefore, in the interest of the whole country, all political parties must come together immediately and work out mechanisms which will enable them to overcome their personal problems at least when it comes to the most pressing problems of the people.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

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