EDITORIAL: That the gap between actual prices of essential food items and rates fixed by district administrations has begun widening abnormally in Punjab, just like Balochistan and Sindh, is bad news for the people of the province but also very bad news for the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government. It mentioned high prices after all, especially of necessities, when it sent Dr Hafeez Sheikh packing. And even more recently, Prime Minister Imran Khan himself said very categorically that the success of this government in its last stretch was directly linked to its ability to control inflation. And now we have a 31.07 percent premium on market prices over rates mandated by the administration in Punjab, which means the time bomb is still ticking. Also, this gap has shot up in Ramazan - it was 15.28 percent before the holy month - which means the government was able to see this coming from a long way away and was still caught napping. Ordinarily, such a thing at such a time would send at least a shiver down the spine of the Punjab chief minister, especially since the PM has been swinging the axe lately and making all sorts of changes, but he seems to enjoy a much higher level of immunity than even his more experienced party colleagues.
The situation is worse in Sindh (39.57pc difference in prices) and Balochistan (42.08pc difference) but the Punjab government will use it as an excuse only at its own cost. For PTI, more than anybody else, has tried to give the impression that inflation is the result of completely artificial manipulation of markets by interest groups, so it naturally follows that the state should extend its long arms and let the law restore balance and sanity in prices. That has not happened, of course, and the fact that it is still not happening even after what seemed like a delayed realisation is even more worrisome. Besides, you don’t really need the usual suspects to push prices up in Ramazan. It is inevitable. Yet this time it was more important than ever to be vigilant. Prices are already very high, growth is low, jobs are scarce and the pandemic has made people’s lives miserable. To see the government’s promises of relief shattered barely a heartbeat after they were made could prove one straw too many unless something is done about it at once.
Making yet more promises is the last thing the government should do. It must deliver results that make the people sleep better at night. And the way to do it right now is to make their food, along with other essential items, affordable once again. How hard can it really be to get sellers to follow the rules and charge according to the government’s rate list? And even if mafias are really an even bigger reason for all this than inefficiency, then why have they not been made examples out of even after so long? And even more importantly, must prices stay up till the last of the villains is rounded up or is there anything at all that the government can do right now?
These questions are foremost on people’s minds. And so far none of them has been answered to anybody’s satisfaction. The PM is right to identify inflation as the number one problem going forward, but it is also very clear that his machinery is not exactly living up to the party’s vision and mission statements. The people are very upset about this state of affairs because even though they are used to seeing politicians fighting all the time, this time the paralysis caused by it has made their food shelves shrink for far too long. With the pandemic getting worse by the day, the government needs to roll out its Plan B, or prepare one if it hasn’t so far, without any further delay. Otherwise, this inflation time bomb will only tick ever louder all the way to the next election.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021