THE food bureaucracy has made a mess of the wheat market. It has sown the seeds for another serious crisis as it tried to avoid a repeat of last year’s flour shortages. Now it is looking for scapegoats. The policy of procuring maximum wheat at a support price of Rs1,400 per 40kg by keeping flour mills out of the competition has led cereal prices to spike in the open market. The government allowed millers to enter the market only after it had dried up. The marketable crop surplus, which wasn’t bought by the government, had already been stocked by speculators hoping to make a quick buck. Consequently, wheat prices in Punjab have soared up to Rs1,900-Rs1,950 per 40kg, and in Sindh to Rs1,750-Rs1,800 per 40kg. The increase has forced flour mills to stop private purchases because of the official cap on retail flour prices based on the subsidised public wheat quota issue rate of Rs1,475 per 40kg. The provinces have been compelled to start releasing wheat quotas to millers from public stocks much earlier than usual to keep the market supplied with affordable flour.
Now the prime minister wants a crackdown against ‘hoarders’, hoping that fear of action would lead those stocking up to liquidate their wheat stock to avoid its confiscation, thus helping to reduce prices for flour millers. But that is unlikely to happen, with prices set to climb to new highs in the coming months. The crackdown may delay the inevitable but won’t prevent it unless the wheat policy is corrected, as such action and price controls seldom work.
The country has harvested a much shorter crop this year than targeted. The carry forward stock isn’t enough to meet requirements. There are a few possible short-term solutions to avert a wheat flour shortage. Permitting millers to charge a higher price for flour and other products they produce from expensive wheat imported or bought from the local market could be one solution. The other could be the government subsidising expensive imported wheat to keep prices affordable for consumers. Or it may stop subsidising retail flour sales by increasing the official wheat issue price to bring it at par with the cost of imported wheat. This will enable importers to bring in grain without fear of losses owing to a large price differential between local and imported cereal. The long-term solution lies in deregulating wheat trade. Currently, the government purchases a large portion of the marketable surplus of crop at a price, which is usually much higher than the international price of the commodity, to support smallholders. It also gives it leverage to fix subsidised retail flour prices for urban consumers. Further, it restricts imports through tariff barriers and controls export. This policy has resulted in massive losses in subsidies, leakages and corruption. The long-term solution lies in the government’s limited presence to ensure a competitive market.
WOMEN legislators in the KP Assembly have voiced their anger against growing incidents of underage marriage, sexual abuse and murder of children. They have demanded answers from the provincial government over the delay in legislation that criminalises child marriages and domestic violence. The outcry was sparked due to ghastly incidents in recent weeks: the marriage of a disabled 12-year-old girl to a teenager which culminated in her death allegedly at the hands of her in-laws in Lower Dir; the marriage of an 11-year-old girl in Torghar district, and the rape of a 13-year-old in Charsadda district. During the session, Nighat Yasmin Orakzai of the PPP correctly pointed out that, although the Punjab and Sindh assemblies had already passed laws to stop domestic violence against women, KP is yet to legislate on early marriages or domestic violence. In response to Ms Orakzai’s demand for “aggressive legislation”, the province’s law minister informed the house that a proposed law regarding domestic violence against women had been referred to the house’s Select Committee, while the Child Marriage Restraint Bill would also be presented before the cabinet.
That KP lawmakers have dragged their feet on such crucial legislation for so long is symptomatic of a larger problem: the lack of political will to protect women and children from abuse and violence. Child marriages are a violation of fundamental human rights and have serious repercussions on the health, education and well-being of the girl as well as her family. While there has been some consensus in the KP Assembly about bringing a law that criminalises child marriage, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Child Marriage Restraint Bill, 2019, is yet to be passed. Even this consensus was reached after months of wrangling over the issue of the ‘permissible minimum marriageable age’ for a female — a debate which reflects how deeply fraught the issue of something as basic as children and women’s protection is. On the issue of domestic violence legislation, there has been even more resistance from religious parties, who, along with the Council of Islamic Ideology, have created hurdles in bringing about the needed laws. It has been over a year since KP’s ministers pledged that pro-women legislation would be enacted. In the absence of these laws, vulnerable citizens continue to suffer while politicians avoid the issue. The PTI, which has now been in power in KP for two successive terms, must prioritise the passing of these laws to guarantee constitutional protection for women and children.
PML-N leader’s remarks
WHILE mudslinging and point-scoring may be part and parcel of politics, certain issues should not be exploited by opponents just to get back at rivals. For example, when questions of religion are dragged into political debates, this can have dangerous consequences in a society like Pakistan, as we have witnessed in the past.
PML-N leader Khawaja Asif has been under fire, particularly from religious parties, after comments he made in the National Assembly last week. On Tuesday, Mr Asif had to clarify his remarks, saying that “misinterpreting” his statements was “extremely irresponsible and wrong”.
The former federal minister had said that “no religion is superior” under the Constitution, apparently speaking in reference to a social media campaign targeting Pakistan’s minority citizens. Religious parties had leapt at the remarks, in reaction to which Khawaja Asif had to reiterate his belief in Islam and its tenets in the house.
The fact is that a great fuss is being created out of a non-issue. From his remarks, it appears as if Mr Asif was reiterating his belief in the fact that all citizens are supposed to be constitutionally equal, regardless of caste and creed, in Pakistan. Unfortunately, obscurantist elements treat any statement in support of minority rights as an attack on Islam.
Over the past few weeks, we have witnessed a major campaign against the building of a Hindu temple in Islamabad, as well as religious parties targeting academics in Sindh for making ‘controversial’ remarks. These incidents show that there is still quite a way to go where the goal of achieving a moderate and tolerant society is concerned.
However, in matters of political debate especially, politicians and lawmakers should refrain from loosely terming remarks ‘blasphemous’, due to the consequences such dangerous accusations entail. Lawmakers should in fact be setting examples for the public by creating an atmosphere that encourages debate and tolerance of opposing viewpoints, instead of unleashing abuse upon rivals simply to score a few cheap points, and potentially putting lives in danger.