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EDITORIAL: It's pretty clear that the government very sincerely wants to bring down prices of essential items, particularly wheat and sugar. But it's also become crystal clear by now that it's simply unable to do so; even though you can't get any more serious than the prime minister himself keeping a very active check on things. But if he, or anybody else in his cabinet, thought that rounding up chief secretaries one more time and giving them the usual dressing down, which has been tried before and found wanting, will work this time, then nobody has been paying attention. And that, unfortunately, does not speak too well about the kind of ideas and briefings that the prime minister seems to be getting on this subject these days.

It's also a little strange that action at the highest level - about something as urgent as runaway inflation in important items including staple food that just refuses to be tamed - is still largely composed of the prime minister enlightening senior bureaucrats and politicians about the harmful effects of expensive food on poor people. The problem is that it's still not clear just why prices have been so flexible to the upside and so sticky to the downside ever since the present government took office. There's clearly no roaring demand, which rules out the possibility of demand-pull inflation. And the government has blamed special interest groups, middlemen, and even "mafias" for the artificial price hike; which does present a workable thesis about artificially created cost-push inflation. But if that were the case, and the government has been so touchy about the subject, then why hasn't it yet mobilised the organs of state that are meant, and trained, to crush just such mafias? Surely, that's a much better way to get the bad guys out of the picture and restore some sanity to prices.

The government has been asked this question many times, of course, and nobody has yet received a satisfactory answer. But if everybody, especially the PM, is extremely serious about prices, and the country's top office has also identified mafias as at least a big part of the problem and still nothing is done about it, then could it be that there are forces within the halls of power in Islamabad that do not want things to change? It is, after all, an open secret of sorts that it's practically impossible to get the ball rolling on anything to do with sugar because of the way industry barons dominate the country's politics. It's said, with good reason, that sugar is always in power no matter which party holds office because sugar mill owners dominate both sides of the aisle in parliament.

Perhaps the whole system needs to be examined. From the way, and the time, support prices are announced to the way stocks are calculated and the manner in which imports are ordered should be thoroughly re-examined to pinpoint all points of inefficiency and market manipulation. And if it turns out that sugar lords in government and opposition have been using the state's own machinery to sabotage the prime minister's price control drive and exploit poor people, then they should be handed exemplary punishments.

The prime minister has lectured everybody enough about the evils of food inflation and the vulnerability of the poor. Now, three years into his administration, he has to begin taking the kind of action that delivers results. Otherwise people will be forced to exercise the only option that they have; and all they have to do is wait for the next general election to do it.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021


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