Looming Wheat scarcity


On the completion of harvesting, thrashing of wheat crop and procurement drive of federal and provincial governments, a shortfall of 1.4 million tonnes has been estimated. Hence the journey from wheat surplus to wheat scarcity has started. This was not an unexpected phenomenon if viewed in the context of deliberate neglect of agriculture by successive governments. Bulk of the wheat procurement has been done by the government of Punjab. Likewise, the government of Sindh has also lifted big quantity of the commodity. On the contrary, purchase of wheat from the local market by the government to build stock remained zero in the provinces of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa and Baluchistan, further increasing their dependence for the supply of wheat and its flour from Punjab. The emerging scenario foretells that next time the magnitude of wheat flour crisis will be greater than the one witnessed few months ago. The price of 20 kilogram bag of wheat flour, which is actually 17 kilogram in weight, has gone up to Rs.1170 in the retail market. Earlier this year, country was hit by wheat flour crisis, which necessitated proper planning about increase in wheat output and gathering of authentic consumption data. Moreover, the unfrequented routes of smuggling to Afghanistan from Khyber Pukhtunkhwa and Baluchistan need to be choked. The inquiry report on recent wheat crisis laid the responsibility squarely on cartel of the commodity. To preempt the monopoly practices of cartels, government of Punjab has released 900,000 tonnes of wheat to flour mills as asked by the Federal Government Committee on Agriculture. It remains to be seen how it lowers the price of the commodity and stabalise it in wholesale and retail markets. So far government has not succeeded to stabalise price of wheat flour by invoking the provision of anti-hoarding law and administrative mechanism of price control because legal and administrative framework can achieve the desired result when supply situation is stable. Ironically, governments of Khyber and Pukhtunkhwa have not taken seriously the increasing dependence for wheat supply from Pun jab. The previous PTI government could have put the province on the path of food autarky, had it allocated sufficient financial resources for water conservation in the shape of constructing small dams, installation of community oriented solar tube wells and agriculture research instead of throwing over Rs.100 billion on a metro bus project, which is still far from completion. The lack of authentic production and consumption data could aggravate wheat scarcity situation and minimize the impact emergency supply augmenting measures. Economic Coordination Committee of the Cabinet (ECC) had decided to allow wheat import by private sector, without putting quantities limit. The levy of five percent advance income tax has also been abolished. However, liberal wheat import policy can achieve the intended goal if the shipments do not land in cartel.