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.
The burning issued that agriculture sector is confronted with include, water scarcity, non-availability of high yield seeds and high cost of fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides, changing cropping pattern due to climate change and above all averse attitude of successive governments to crops protection. It is encouraging that federal government has started construction on two big storage dams. However, its support to smaller provinces in the construction of medium scale storage dams is equally essential. The withdrawal of Gas Infrastructure Development Cess has not gone far enough to lower the price of fertilizers. Quite recently, Finance Advisor Dr. Abdual Hafeez Sheikh has hinted at gas price adjustment, which will certainly jack up the price of this input. The helplessness shown in the face of recurring locust attacks by the federal and provincial governments indicates neglect of crops protection, which should have been an integral part of agriculture development. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN has already warned against food insecurity, if serious and persistent efforts are not made to prevent locust swarms from attacking the Rabi and Kharif crops. It is pertinent to mention that it were the short term strategy of military led government implanted in 200-01, comprising minimum support price, low prices of fertilizers and insecticides and improved quality of seeds, which resulted in surplus production of wheat and other cereal crops in addition to cash crops. There is dire need of implanting short term strategies and long term planning, if the goal of food autarky is to be achieved.